When Elsie Dawe learned from a reporter that a local gun show operator was advertising that an upcoming gun show in Cheektowaga would benefit Women & Children’s Hospital of Buffalo, she got on the phone as quickly as possible to put an end to it.
“It was not sanctioned by us nor would it ever be,” said Dawe, who is the vice president of the Foundations of Kaleida Health, which includes the foundation that benefits Children’s Hospital.
“This is totally unacceptable to us. This is something we don’t do,” Dawe said. “... It’s guns.”
The gun show, scheduled to take place March 9 and 10 at the Knights of Columbus Banquet Hall, is being put on by the Niagara Frontier Collectors, the region’s dominant gun show operator.
A month after a series of horrifying mass shootings involving lone gunmen armed with military-style assault rifles that claimed the lives of Connecticut schoolchildren and their teachers, Rochester-area volunteer firefighters and Christmas shoppers at a mall in Oregon, gun shows in Western New York and across the state are raising questions – and also gaining support.
Gun shows are “the safest place to buy a gun, other than a gun shop,” said James Buck, president of Niagara Frontier Collectors. “They are so strict on regulations and rules … The vendors at gun shows, believe me, abide by all state and federal laws.”
Buck’s gun show company, which has two partners, has sponsored hundreds of shows across Western New York, Pennsylvania and Ohio, and is planning on putting on about a dozen more this year, including one this weekend at the Newstead volunteer fire hall.
Buck, a retired Jamestown firefighter who has been sponsoring gun shows since the 1960s, defended his business and gun shows as safe places where responsible gun owners can purchase firearms, ranging from antique muskets to military-style weapons, magazines, ammunition and other gun-related items.
“Gun shows are not the problem,” he said. “The problem is criminals buying guns.”
Buck and others involved in renting local venues argue that the gatherings are legal and that sales are highly regulated with on-the-spot computerized criminal background checks. Off-duty police are hired to provide security at some shows, which supporters say are patronized by individuals who respect the law and gun safety. They also can provide money for venues and charities.
Niagara Frontier Collectors’ upcoming gun shows include one in March at the Hamburg Fairgrounds and four at area volunteer fire halls. The four at the fire halls have raised some eyebrows in light of the Christmas Eve shootings of two volunteer firefighters from West Webster, near Rochester.
Buck couldn’t say either way whether the military-style AR-15 rifle, the kind used in all three of last month’s mass shootings, would be sold at any of the upcoming shows.
It wasn’t because of lack of popularity, he said, explaining the weapon may be difficult to come by because supplies have dwindled since word began spreading of a possible new ban on such rifles.
Volunteer firefighters in Newstead, whose hall was rented out for one of the gun shows today and Sunday, told The Buffalo News they are concerned about sponsoring the show, but point out the rental agreement for their hall was made months ago.
“We talked to the gun show promoter and have been assured that they are meeting all applicable state laws,” Newstead Fire Chief Scott G. Zitzka said. “We have members on both sides, pro-gun and anti-gun, and we are seeking legal advice for future shows. We are very appalled at what happened in Connecticut and West Webster.”
At the Hamburg Fairgrounds, steps are planned to either block or limit the number of high-performance rifles that will be on display there in March.
In upcoming negotiations for a hall rental agreement with Niagara Frontier Collectors, the fairgrounds intends to ask that military-style rifles either not be sold or remain in limited numbers, said Jeff Rapini, event center manager at the Erie County Agricultural Society’s fairgrounds.
“We would have [Niagara Frontier Collectors] talk to their sellers to limit or eliminate the number of assault-type weapons for sale,” Rapini said. “They also need to continue to comply with making sure the legal requirements are met on all sales.”
Saying officials in his organization are sensitive to the Newtown tragedy, Rapini pointed out that, at past gun shows at the fairgrounds, very few vendors have sold those types of weapons.
“They have a very small percentage that sell the assault-type weapons. It is mostly shotguns and handguns,” he said.
AR-15s are just one of a number of military-style weapons civilians can buy. The AK-47 is another popular rifle, so is the Russian- and Chinese-made SKS rifle and the TEC-9 pistol.
Across the state since last month’s shootings, anti-gun violence advocates have tried to prevent gun shows in public venues.
In Saratoga Springs, a gun show at the city’s Center Authority this weekend was challenged but is scheduled to go on. At the state government level, there have been discussions about ways to discourage local municipalities from allowing future gun shows on public property.
Al Ziolkowski, secretary of the Catholic Club, which owns the Knights’ banquet hall, said the private club has nothing to do directly with the March gun show that was to benefit Children’s Hospital.
“We only rent the building out. We have nothing to do with the contents of what goes on,” he said, but added that the organization did insist that a portion of the proceeds from the admission fee to the show be donated to charity.
Niagara Frontier Collectors, the show’s sponsor, agreed and plans to make a donation to Women & Children’s Hospital.
Ziolkowski, who said he was not speaking on behalf of the Knights of Columbus, said the gun show has tight security.
“It is well-supervised. They have police right in the building. They have security. There are uniformed officers who are hired while off duty,” he said. “The person who runs the show runs a tight ship.”
On whether military-style weapons, such as the Bushmaster AR-15 that Newtown shooter Adam Lanza used, would be banned from the show, Ziolkowski said he did not wish to get involved in what may or may not be sold at the show.
Dawe said hospital foundation officials had no idea the gun show was raising money for Children’s Hospital and that it’s quite common for groups of all kinds to raise money for the hospital without letting it know beforehand.
Had it not been brought to Kaleida’s attention, Dawe said, “we never would have known.”
She said the foundation has turned down other events in the past because they’re not appropriate for children.
“We don’t do cigar parties,” she said.
Buck says he takes pride in providing a safe venue for the sale of guns through his gun shows.
Steps to make sure shows are legally conducted, he said, not only include the required background checks on prospective gun buyers but inspecting every purchased gun before it leaves the premises.
“You can’t leave a gun show without a release tag on it, showing that the gun was properly sold,” Buck said.
And those bringing guns in to swap or sell are checked, Buck added. “They are checked in with a red tag, making sure who the owner is, that the gun is empty and that the serial number is recorded. The same check is conducted when they leave.”
Niagara Frontier Collectors came under scrutiny by State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman’s office two years ago following a sting at two of Buck’s gun shows where undercover buyers were able to purchase weapons from two dealers even after saying they couldn’t pass a background check.
They also found that the operator had not followed strict rules on posting adequate signs about background checks.
The company has since signed an agreement with the Attorney General’s Office to ensure all rules are enforced. A spokeswoman for Schneiderman’s office said that the operator has been “extremely cooperative.”
The News also spoke with the Buffalo-area promoter for Niagara Frontier Collectors about the shows.
He insisted his name not be made public, explaining he is an honest businessman who goes out of his way to obey the law and does not want to be singled out in the public controversy.
“I just wish they would show a father buying his daughter her first bolt-action .22 rifle when she is 14 and the look in her eyes, all excited to learn gun safety and the fundamental basics of shooting with her dad. It just sends a shiver down me,” the promoter said. “There are bad people with guns and good people. It’s never a story about the good people protecting themselves with guns.”
At least one area volunteer firefighter said he believes there’s nothing wrong with having a gun show at a fire hall and suspects he’s not in the minority among fellow firefighters, many of whom are avid hunters like himself.
“There’s nothing wrong with any firearm being sold if it’s used and owned legally,” said Mike Burns, who is a volunteer firefighter in Erie County.
He asked that his fire department not be identified because he was speaking for himself and not the department. He said fire halls depend on groups renting out their halls to help keep their volunteer operations afloat. Banning such events would mean a loss of revenue, he said.
“It’s really going in the wrong direction,” he said.
Burns criticized Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s calls to ban assault weapons, pointing out that the governor’s calls for new legislation would not have done anything to keep the assault rifle out of the hands of William Spengler, the ex-con who killed the West Webster firefighters.
Erie County Sheriff Timothy Howard said he also found Cuomo’s calls to ban assault weapons misguided and believes it would be more helpful to find better ways to share mental health information about people who pose a threat. “I’m one of those people who gives a lot of credence to the saying: guns don’t kill people, people kill people,” he said.
Howard said bans only punish law-abiding gun owners and not dangerous criminals.
The longtime lawman said he has no issue with public venues being used for gun shows and that he’s never known of problems at or around such venues.
He also said he takes no issue with gun shows raising money for charity, pointing out that he sponsors an annual clay-pigeon shoot to benefit the Boy Scouts and also teaches firearm safety to Scout troops.
“It helps demonstrate responsible gun ownership,” he said.
Buffalo Police Commissioner Daniel Derenda said he supports the rights of law-abiding gun owners but wants the full force of the law brought down on criminals with guns.
“We need to protect the rights of those owners, and we also need to do everything possible to keep guns out of the hands of criminals and the mentally ill,” Derenda said. “We need to really hold people accountable for their criminal actions, to the letter of the law.”
Of the 50 homicides in the city last year, 43 involved gunfire. At least one of the shooters used an AK-47.
Area gun show dates
Municipalities hosting venues for firearms dealers:
Akron – Today and Sunday
Caledonia – Jan. 19-20
Canandaigua – Jan. 26-27
Alexander – Feb. 3
Clarence – Feb. 9-10
Salamanca – Feb. 16-17
Springville – Feb. 23-24
Hamburg – March 2-3
Cheektowaga – March 9-10
Batavia – April 27-28
Clarence – Aug. 18-19