An act of pro-gun solidarity has led to the indefinite postponement of an expo of outdoors products that is billed as the largest in North America.
Two weeks ago, organizers of the Eastern Sports and Outdoors Show in Harrisburg -- a massive exhibition of some 1,200 dealers of all types of outdoors gear, clothing, cooking supplies and vacation packages -- abruptly announced it would forbid the sale and display of military-style semi-automatic rifles at the event. The ban triggered a revolt among the show's gun exhibitors that grew to a boycott by vendors and sponsors, including hundreds of companies, many of which do not sell guns.
On Thursday, Reed Exhibitions USA, a subsidiary of one of the world's largest event organizers based in England, said it had postponed "for now" the nine-day show, which was scheduled to open Feb. 2 at the Harrisburg Farm Show Complex.
"Our original decision not to include certain products ... this year was made in order to preserve the event's historical focus on the hunting and fishing traditions enjoyed by American families," Chet Burchett, Reed Exhibitions USA president, said in a prepared statement. "In the current climate, we felt that the presence of [military-style rifles] would distract from the theme of hunting and fishing, disrupting the broader experience of our guests."
Reed's decision was made a month after the Newtown, Conn., school shooting and during intense legislative debate about gun control.
A spokeswoman declined to comment.
In his statement, Mr. Burchett said the ban on military-style firearms was simply "a product decision, of the type event organizers need to make every day."
But that's not the way some vendors saw it.
"Due to recent changes made by Reed Exhibitions regarding the Eastern Sports and Outdoor Show, Cabela's will no longer sponsor this year's event," wrote the outdoors retailer and mail-order giant on its Facebook page.
In a statement posted by The Sportsman's Shop of New Holland, Pa., store owner Joe Keffer, a board member of the National Shooting Sports Foundation, said he would not participate in the show.
"I was hopeful that an agreement could be reached to allow the show to continue at the caliber to which my fellow exhibitors, manufacturers and the more than 200,000 attendees have come to expect," wrote Mr. Keffer, a longtime exhibitor at the show. "While I respect Reed's desire to be sensitive to events that have caused great pain to Connecticut and our nation, and to avoid negative publicity for the show, it's also critical that we don't infringe on the rights of safe, responsible, law-abiding citizens to purchase, own and use legal firearms."
The National Rife Association withdrew its support with a message posted on its website.
"We are disappointed that Reed Exhibitions has ignored the concerns expressed by attendees, the outdoor industry and the NRA in not reconsidering their position to ban the display of modern sporting rifles," it read.
More than 200 exhibitors including Bass Pro Shops, Sportsmans Liquidation, ThermaCell, Unified Sportsmen of Pennsylvania, Comcast, Pennsylvania Independent Oil and Gas Association, The Outdoors Channel and the National Wild Turkey Federation had vowed to participate in the boycott.
Reed told exhibitors via email that booth rental fees would be refunded.
David E. Black, president and CEO of the Harrisburg Chamber of Commerce, said the economic impact of the loss of one of Harrisburg's biggest events would be substantial.
"It's the loss of over 1,000 vendors and hundreds of thousands of people from as far as the Washington, D.C., metro area, Baltimore, Philadelphia," he said. "It's the loss of the spin-off impact -- hotels, restaurants, gas stations, all of that -- especially at this time of year."
David Brown, executive director of the Tennessee-based American Outdoors Association, which represents outfitters in the U.S. and Canada, said that for some of his members, "This cancellation is going to cost them money they may not be able to recover."
Randy Santucci of Robinson, president of Unified Sportsmen, said he was particularly troubled by "the UK connection."
"When you have a representative of a foreign country trying to dictate gun rights to Americans on American soil, it's time to take a stand," he said. "The admirable thing about the people who pulled out is that they were willing to sacrifice their booth fees to support their Second Amendment rights."
Buddy Savage, owner of Braverman Arms in Wilkinsburg, who did not plan to attend this year's Eastern Sports Show, said the outrage of gun dealers was philosophical as well as commercial.
"Taking the military-style guns out of the display is a big deal," he said. "They have a lot more invested in a $5,000 gun than in a $500 gun. They're high-end, class-act firearms -- you have a different clientele. It's like taking Cadillacs out of a car show because a few people drive them too fast."
An upcoming outdoors expo at the Monroeville Convention Center has none of the controversy surrounding the Harrisburg show. Several years ago, organizers of the Allegheny Sport, Travel and Outdoors Show banned the sale of all firearms after a dealer was caught illegally selling ammunition in the parking lot. One manufacturer, Savage Arms, will display but not sell its products at the Feb. 13-17 expo. Firearms will be sold at the same venue at two upcoming gun shows.
Promoter Chris Fassnacht of Expositions Inc. said he got 55 phone calls Thursday from Harrisburg exhibitors hoping to find a place in Monroeville.
"I had to turn most of them away," he said. "Eighty percent are outfitters, and we have enough outfitters at our show."
John Hayes: 412-263-1991, firstname.lastname@example.org. First Published January 25, 2013 5:00 AM