North Carolina could join a small number of states that allow concealed handguns at state fairs when a judge considers a legal challenge to the ban on firearms at the annual event.
The gun-rights group Grass Roots North Carolina argues in a legal filing that a recent change in state law makes it illegal for the fair to ban concealed-carry permit holders from bringing guns, and a legal scholar agrees that they have a strong argument going into their hearing Monday. The fair starts on Thursday.
Grass Roots North Carolina claims several other states allow concealed carry permit holders to bring their handguns to state fairs, including Florida and Texas. The law enforcement agencies that oversee the Florida and Texas fairs said they know of no problems stemming from the concealed firearm rules.
"I don't think it's been an issue at all," said Debbie Carter, spokeswoman for the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office in Florida, where a 2012 change in state law prompted the fair to allow permit holders to bring concealed handguns.
Only in recent years have state fairs begun allowing concealed handguns, said Jim Tucker, president and CEO of the International Association of Fairs and Expositions.
"I think it's a pretty small number that actually allow them to be brought onto fairgrounds that are state-owned," he said, adding that he didn't have a list.
He said his group doesn't take a stance on the policy: "Our advice to our members is to follow to your state laws."
North Carolina Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler has said he is a gun owner and supporter of gun rights, but he believes firearms don't mix with crowds, children and fair rides.
"The fair's weapons policy, which has been in place for decades, also plays an important role in maintaining that safe environment," Troxler said in response to the legal action.
Paul Valone, president of Grass Roots North Carolina, argues in court papers that safety features of firearms and holsters should prevent guns from being ejected from fair rides or discharging in crowds. His group is asking the judge for an injunction preventing the fair from imposing the ban on concealed handguns.
Valone cited violence in recent years at other state fairs to argue that permit holders should be able to carry their guns. In 2011, 31 people were arrested and 11 injured in violence on the opening night of the Wisconsin State Fair, which does not allow concealed weapons.
Valone's group argues that Troxler's ban is illegal because of a North Carolina law passed in 2013 expanding where concealed handguns can be carried.
A legal scholar at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill says that while the laws on the topic are nuanced, the gun-rights advocates have a strong argument.
Jeffrey B. Welty, an associate professor of Public Law and Government at UNC, noted in a legal analysis that state law bans concealed firearms in certain state buildings including the Capitol, but it doesn't list the fairgrounds. State law allows private property owners to keep concealed weapons out, but it's not clear if that aspect of the law strengthens the argument of those who run the fairgrounds, which are public property.
"I think that the somewhat stronger argument is that Commissioner Troxler doesn't have the authority to ban concealed carry," Welty said in an interview.
One of the primary sponsors of the gun law passed in 2013, Rep. George Cleveland, said he doesn't recall any discussion for or against allowing guns at the State Fair while the bill was being crafted.
"To my knowledge, it was not discussed at all," said the Jacksonville Republican.
"The intent of the bill was to open concealed carry in places where people gather," he added. "The way I understand the bill, it allows concealed carry at the agricultural fair, at the State Fair. And if that's what the bill allows, that's what should happen."
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