One of the nation's largest outdoor shows was postponed indefinitely on Thursday after pro-gun rights groups and the National Rifle Association boycotted the event in response to a decision by organizers to ban the exhibition of military-style assault weapons.
The weeklong Eastern Sports and Outdoor Show was scheduled to begin Feb. 2 in Harrisburg, Penn., but Reed Exhibitions, the show's organizer, posted a statement on its website announcing that the show would be "postpone[d], for now … given the controversy surrounding its decision to limit the sale or display of modern sporting rifles (also called ARs) at the event." "Modern sporting rifle" is a term devised and promoted by the gun manufacturing industry to describe military-style assault weapons.
The initial decision on Jan. 16 to bar the display of assault weapons at the family-themed event was made in the wake of the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre in Connecticut, a tragedy which galvanized public support for broader gun safety laws and led to a vigorous debate over the merits of civilian ownership of "modern sporting rifles" (MSRs).
According to Reed Exhibitions' United States President Chet Burchett, "in the current climate, we felt that the presence of MSRs would distract from the theme of hunting and fishing, disrupting the broader experience of our guests. This was intended simply as a product decision, of the type event organizers need to make every day."
But that's not how gun rights groups saw it. On Jan. 15, a group called My Northeast Outdoors called for a boycott of the show on Facebook, saying the Eastern Sports and Outdoors Show "decided to infringe on our Second Amendment Rights and has instituted a ban on 'certain weapons' at their show for 2013." The group urged supporters to help spread the word.
The nascent boycott only gathered steam this week, when on Tuesday the NRA announced that it was pulling out of the show "due to Reed Exhibitions' refusal to reconsider their decision to ban Modern Sporting Rifles." Following the NRA's decision, hundreds more vendors pulled out, as did Olympic shooting gold-medalist Jamie Gray. By Thursday afternoon, the boycott's Facebook page had more than 18,000 Likes.
Following the mass exodus of hundreds of exhibitors Burchet said, “it has become very clear to us after speaking with our customers that the event could not be held because the atmosphere of this year’s show would not be conducive to an event that is designed to provide family enjoyment. It is unfortunate that in the current emotionally charged atmosphere this celebratory event has become overshadowed by a decision that directly affected a small percentage of more than 1,000 exhibits showcasing products and services for those interested in hunting and fishing."
Questions over how to define guns banned by the ESOS show are at the heart of the national debate over a ban on certain types of military-style weapons. Despite its current association with the gun control movement, the term "assault weapon" was initially adopted by the gun industry in the early 1980s as a way to market a new type of high-tech gun to consumers.
Following the 1994 Assault Weapons Ban, the term went out of fashion with the gun industry, and "modern sporting rifle" gradually emerged to take its place. On Thursday, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) introduced legislation in the Senate that would ban the manufacture and sale of more than 150 types of military-style assault weapons, but the bill faces tough odds in Congress.
Those who planned to attend the show aren't the only people who will be affected by the postponement. The city of Harrisburg has projected that the loss of the show would cost the city's hotels, restaurants and businesses about $44 million in lost revenues.