Here's the thing about the Bill of Rights: It isn't an a la carte menu. You can't just pick and choose. But that's exactly what public officials in my neighborhood want to do in their brazenly unconstitutional attempt to ban gun shows.
The Montgomery County (Md.) Council introduced a bill this week to deny public funding to "any organization that allows the display and sale of guns" on its property. It would also expand a current county law that mandates gun-free zones within 100 yards of a "place of public assembly" by adding fairgrounds, conference centers and exhibition halls to the areas where gun displays and sales are forbidden. This effort follows a nationwide assault launched in Los Angeles, which moved to ban gun shows two years ago.
The dead aim of my local lawmakers is to shut down Maryland's only gun show operator, Silverado Promotions, which has held events at a local fairgrounds for a decade without incident. Council president Blair Ewing claims the bill is "designed to reduce easy availability of guns" and prevent crime. But Maryland has among the most stringent gun control laws in the country, and the so-called "gun-show loophole" has already been closed here.
It is simply not true, as the gun-control lobby claims, that gun shows foster more gun-related crime. A U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics report on federal firearms offenders released last year reported that a mere 1.7 percent of crime guns are acquired at gun shows. Frank Krasner, owner of Silverado Promotions, adds that his shows are heavily policed -- and attended by many cops who are hobbyists and collectors themselves. "The only complaint I've ever gotten from police is that there aren't enough parking spaces for their cars," Krasner told me.
In addition to strict observance of background checks and waiting periods, Krasner enforces a plethora of safety rules: all incoming firearms are inspected, disabled and displayed under net or glass; no handguns are delivered to the buyer at the show; and all dealers must publicly display their licenses.
Gun show bans aren't about promoting safety. They're about cracking down on the free speech and free assembly of law-abiding citizens who have a passion for exercising their Second Amendment rights. At gun shows across the country, hunters shop for equipment, buy books and swap tips. Families browse historical exhibits, antiques, collectibles and war memorabilia. And yes, people from all walks of life come to buy guns for recreation and self-defense. "There's a lot of education and political activity that goes on at our shows," Krasner notes. "The real problem these gun bigots have is not with crime, but with the lawful civilian ownership of firearms."
Krasner is considering litigation if the proposal passes. The law is on his side. Courts from California to Florida have held that gun-show transactions involve constitutionally protected commercial speech. "(S)ome type of speech is necessarily involved in the sale of any gun. A gun may not be sold in silence, without any exchange of verbal communication whatsoever," noted a federal appeals court in California upon overturning a Santa Clara gun show ban strictly on First Amendment grounds. The court criticized the gun show ban as an "inept response to pressure by residents who strongly support the cause of gun control." Inept, discriminatory, and illegal.
Michael Wright, a Los Angeles attorney who represents the Great Western Gun Show (which is currently challenging a 1999 county gun show ban), told me he believes the Montgomery County, Md., ban won't stand up in court either. "Banning the mere display of guns gets you right down free speech alley. If you ban the display of arms, you ban speech. The proposal is almost certainly a First Amendment violation."
This may be hard for gun-grabbers to swallow, but the First Amendment applies to Second Amendment advocates, too. Government officials who are pursuing gun show bans nationwide may be winning in the court of public opinion. But in the court of law, thanks to our Founders, the basic constitutional rights of gun show operators and attendees are bulletproof.