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As Harrisburg gun show canceled, some businesses wary of taking sides

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Saturday, Jan. 26, 2013, 9:20 p.m.
 

It took 10 days for gun sellers and hunters to bring down a 61-year-old outdoor sporting goods show in Harrisburg.

A social media-fueled boycott was the weapon of choice.

Organizers of the 2013 Eastern Sports & Outdoor Show, which had been scheduled Feb. 2-10 in the Pennsylvania Farm Show Complex, postponed the event indefinitely when dozens of small businesses and high-profile corporate sponsors — including Cabela's, Smith & Wesson and the National Rifle Association — withdrew because of a ban on military-style assault rifles and high-volume ammunition magazines at the show.

The ban was an attempt by the show's U.K.-based organizer, Reed Exhibitions, to avoid controversy surrounding the expanding debate about the availability of such weapons in light of the elementary school massacre last month in Newtown, Conn.

“Our original decision not to include certain products in the Eastern Sports & Outdoor Show 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 president for the Americas, said in a prepared statement. “In the current climate, we felt that the presence of MSRs (military-style rifles) would distract from the theme of hunting and fishing, disrupting the broader experience of our guests.”

Reed Exhibitions did not respond to an interview request. Officials at the Hershey Harrisburg Visitors Bureau said the 10-day event would have attracted 1,000 vendors and 250,000 visitors, resulting in an estimated 12,000 hotel room bookings. That would have translated into $44 million spent on lodging and food. The overall economic impact would have been $80 million.

Many of the show's vendors who don't sell guns but cater to anglers and hunters participated in the boycott.

Doug Dietrich, co-owner of American Whitetails of PA in Harrisburg, said he probably lost the opportunity to sign up 20 to 30 customers at the show when he withdrew as a vendor. He doesn't sell military-style rifles, but he said he pulled out on principle.

“I put off a house payment to be able to pay for a booth,” Dietrich said. “I don't know if we'll recover from it. We just started our guide service, and we really needed to get customers.”

Reed Exhibitions has said vendors will receive refunds.

Shira Goodman, executive director of nonprofit Cease Fire PA, said her group supports the show organizer's decision.

“Reed is a private entity, not a government actor, so what it decides to sell at its shows has nothing to do with the Second Amendment,” Goodman said.

“We thought that it exhibited some genuine concern for the conversation the country is starting to have” about military-style assault weapons.

Foxpro Furtakers Inc. of Lewistown, listed as a show sponsor, has a statement on its website expressing solidarity with gun owners.

Its statement calls Reed Exhibition's decision “disheartening and regrettable to hear.”

Other vendors were too skittish to express their pro-gun opinions publicly for fear of damaging business relationships with major corporate sponsors that have tried to stay neutral.

Among them is Jack Daniel's Tennessee Whiskey, which acknowledged the controversy but didn't take a side in emailed responses to customer inquiries.

“Our sponsorship is not meant as a political statement,” the company said in one response posted to an online message board.

Bumpy Beer Mustard, which sells Jack Daniel's-brand apparel and food, was reticent, but said the controversy put it in a tough spot.

“We don't want to say anything that would offend or upset,” a store representative said.

“I just can't believe they did it,” she said, referring to Reed's restrictions on weapons and large magazines.

Jeremy Boren is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7935 or jboren@tribweb.com.

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