Del Mar Fair board temporarily halts gun shows


On a date seared forever into the national collective consciousness, the group that oversees the Del Mar Fairgrounds made a little history of its own.

For the first time in three decades, the venue will not schedule a gun show among its events for the coming year.

The 22nd District Agricultural Association Board of Directors, which oversees the state-owned fairgrounds, voted 8-1 Tuesday, Sept. 11, to discontinue holding the shows in 2019.

The year-long hiatus aims to give the board time to research and develop a policy that would allow gun shows to resume while emphasizing education and safety, but without the presence of firearms and ammunition on the premises.

“We’re thrilled because we think the board is taking a careful, measured step in doing the right thing for the community by giving themselves a year to make a decision that is wise and prudent,” said Rose Ann Sharp, founder of the gun-control advocacy group NeverAgainCA.

The organization and other gun show opponents have been appearing at the agricultural board meetings over the last six months to voice their displeasure. The lobbying commenced following a mass shooting in February in a Florida high school that resulted in 17 deaths.

Tuesday’s meeting on the fairgrounds property was the first in which board members publicly addressed the issue, based on a recommendation from its contract committee consisting of board President Stephen Shewmaker and board member Richard Valdez.

Shewmaker said that after his appointment to the board in 2012 by Gov. Jerry Brown, he accepted the perception the gun shows conducted several times a year by the firm Crossroads of the West were trouble-free and generated revenue.

Shewmaker, who admitted to being a victim of gun violence, said he got a different picture after going to such shows at the fairgrounds and elsewhere.

“What I found was quite different than the Kool-Aid I was led to drink,” he said.

He said he was disturbed to find that non-hunting and non-sport related items such as armor-piercing ammunition and hollow-point bullets were being sold, and the events were not free of criminal offenses. Moreover, he said, the shows have not been significant moneymakers for the district.

The board’s decision came nine days after a fairgrounds incident in which a man pulled out a gun and fired a bullet into the air, after which he was shot and wounded by a sheriff’s deputy.

The man, who was arrested, apparently was disgruntled when he learned he was too late to buy a ticket to a sold-out concert by the rapper Ice Cube. The event was staged by the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club, which operates the fairgrounds racetrack on a contract with the agriculture district and conducts related entertainment events there during the horse race season.

Fairgrounds General Manager Tim Fennell and board members praised staff and public safety responders for their prompt and efficient handling of the episode. They, however, did not note any connection between it and the gun-show issue. The contract committee’s recommendation to the board was developed prior to the incident.

Board members and speakers also alluded to the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center towers and the Pentagon that traumatized the nation on the same date 17 years ago.

Several hundred people attended Tuesday’s meeting, during which about 70 individuals provided public comments over a span of nearly three hours. The session, including the board’s deliberations, took almost five hours interrupted by a 1 1/2 hour recess from the public proceeding.

A slight majority of the speakers supported the committee recommendation, though many of them pleaded for the board to ban gun shows in any form.

Gun show proponents argued the events are family-oriented, promote safety and education, and provide customers with an array of products beyond weapons and ammo.

Those supporting the shows contend that there is no nexus between the shows and gun violence, and that such events would not be viable without guns and ammunition being available on the premises.

“You wouldn’t go to a car show without cars, so why would you go to a gun show without guns?” asked Wendy Hauffen, executive administrator of San Diego County Gun Owners.

Agricultural district board member Russ Penniman cast the dissenting vote against the contract committee’s recommendation.

Penniman expressed concerns about the district’s loss of from $200,000 to $300,000 per year by not holding the gun shows and the potential for litigation.

Possible legal issues could stem from the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment guaranteeing freedom of speech and the Second Amendment guaranteeing the right to bear arms.

Most of the board members, however, stressed that the decision on whether to hold the events is discretionary and they were responding to concerns voiced by many constituents.

“There is a large demographic ... that does not want gun shows to continue at the fairgrounds,” Valdez said.

The proposed policy is an attempt to reach a compromise between the two viewpoints, he said.

NeverAgainCA member Latha Sundar, a Del Mar resident, said she was surprised by the margin of votes favoring the committee recommendation.

“What I was impressed by was that they listened carefully to all the different perspectives,” she said. “From what I saw, it was fantastic that the (committee recommendation) got eight votes. I didn’t think it was possible.”

The San Diego Union-Tribune reported that Crossroads Vice President Tracy Olcott said they will "fight" the decision.

According to the U-T story, she said none of the company’s shows at other venues have been cancelled, and there’s legal precedent for holding the shows on state property.

“We are not going to just walk away,” she said in the U-T story. “We have invested a lot of years there, and we have a lot of support.”