Officials in standoff with Florida gun show company over use of city venue

An NRA-endorsed company is suing for the right to hold its gun show where it has for 30 years: at the War Memorial public park

From cat shows to car auctions, martial arts tournaments and exhibitions of quilts and orchids, Fort Lauderdale’s War Memorial auditorium has been home to popular community events for years.

Now, however, one prominent gathering will be missing for the first time in three decades. After protests in the wake of last year’s Parkland school shooting barely 20 miles away, and a new wave of determination by city leaders, a gun and knife show that bills itself as Florida’s largest has been excluded from the landmark venue.

It is a decision that has sparked an escalating legal battle between Florida Gun Shows, a National Rifle Association-endorsed company that insists its right to operate freely has been illegally curtailed, and city commissioners who are adamant they have the right to determine who can use its facilities inside a public park.

“The purpose of War Memorial is to have family-oriented activities and events, things like the orchid show, things you can bring your kids to,” said Jamie Cole, Broward county managing director for Weiss Serota Helfman Cole & Bierman, the attorneys hired by the city to defend the lawsuit.

“Obviously you can bring your kid to a gun show, but the idea of a gun show is not to entertain kids. It’s not Disney World, it’s not Chuck E Cheese’s, it’s not a child-friendly environment.”

The case was the subject of a one-day hearing in federal court earlier this month when lawyers for Florida Gun Shows sought an injunction against the city for refusing to renew its agreement to operate at the auditorium, opened in 1950 to commemorate the city’s fallen second world war servicemen and women.

The company, which hosts shows in eight cities around the state, including several times a year in Fort Lauderdale until the agreement expired in November, claims in the lawsuit that its first amendment right to free speech and 14th amendment right to equal protection were violated by the city’s refusal to renew its agreement, and that the commissioners also broke state law over its freedom to sell firearms.

Cole, however, disputes the claims.

“The city isn’t regulating firearms,” he said. “The city just made a business decision not to issue a license. This is not a law, not an ordinance, not a rule, and not a regulation. Cities are allowed in their proprietary capacity to decide who to allow to utilize city property. Florida Gun Shows has eight locations and only this one is inside a park.”

The lawsuit also accuses city leaders of bowing to the protests that followed the February 2018 murders of 17 students and teachers at Parkland’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas high school.

“Despite Florida Gun Shows’ history of promoting successful and safe gun shows at the WMA for many years, as a result of the tragic shooting deaths of a number of Broward County students at the hands of a criminal, the political climate in Broward County in 2018 has become very hostile towards gun shows and gun rights in general,” it stated.

District judge Federico Moreno has yet to rule on the injunction, and also has to decide if the case should proceed to trial or be dismissed without merit. But the city signalled it would vigorously defend itself when commissioners voted this week to quadruple their payments to attorneys Weiss Serota to $200,000.

“We are very serious about our intentions,” commissioner Steven Glassman said. “The gun show is just not an appropriate activity for a place where families congregate and children play. It should be in a much different setting.”

Following the Parkland shooting, the show owners agreed to a friendly request from the commission to postpone their next show, but the city hardened its stance when the new mayor, Dean Trantalis, and several new commissioners took office last March. Trantalis had been a longstanding opponent of the gun show taking place inside Holiday park, which includes the auditorium, the 1,200-seat Parker Playhouse performing arts centre and sports facilities.

“We wanted to create a more family-friendly environment and certainly the War Memorial auditorium hosting a gun show did not serve those purposes,” he said.

“It does not mean we’re saying that you cannot sell guns in the city of Fort Lauderdale as long as it’s done according to the rule of law. I’m not judging families who want to train their kids in marksmanship and gun ownership, but the number of children who attended these events were few and far between. If we could convert the use of the building for more engagement of the youth in our community we would be better serving the public.”

To that end, the city has been pursuing a partnership with the Florida Panthers ice hockey team to refurbish the park and build new soccer, lacrosse and two training ice rinks. Additional funds will come if voters approve in March a proposed $200m bond issue to revamp a number of city parks.

Michael Woodbury, attorney for Florida Gun Shows, did not reply to a request for comment.

Contributor

Richard Luscombein Fort Lauderdale

The GuardianTramp

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