ROCKVILLE - Montgomery County isn't known for gun shows, but the County Council moved yesterday to stop the few it has by narrowly approving a measure that has pitted gun owners against suburban mothers worried about gun violence.
The council voted 5-4 to bar gun shows on public property and to cut off county funds to any private group that permits the display and sale of firearms.
The aim of the heavily amended proposal, which provoked months of debate, is to shut down two gun shows held each year at the county's privately owned fairgrounds in Gaithersburg. Silverado Promotions of Germantown has leased the fairgrounds for the past decade for weekend hunting-season shows.
"What's next, the rodeo?" asked Frank Krasner, owner of Silverado Promotions, who vowed to challenge the ban in federal court because the Montgomery shows make up a "significant" part of his business. "I think this is nothing more than a solution looking for a problem. There isn't a problem."
Tierney O'Neil, president of the Montgomery chapter of the Million Mom March, argued that the gun-show restrictions reflect the sentiments of many residents in the largely suburban county.
"The majority of county residents do not want to see a penny of their tax dollars going in any way to gun shows," she said.
Montgomery County has a strict law that prohibits gun shows in public places, but the law does not apply to municipalities, and Gaithersburg officials have resisted forcing the fairgrounds to end gun shows. That prompted Council President Blair Ewing to propose holding up county funds.
"The public clearly in Montgomery County doesn't want guns easily available and on display, " said Ewing, a Democrat who noted that the rural lifestyle that once favored guns has all but disappeared. "To me, the issue is simply: Should we encourage and support gun shows? I think no."
County Executive Douglas M. Duncan, who has lobbied Gaithersburg to restrict gun shows, said through a spokesman that he would sign the measure. That would force Montgomery County Agricultural Center Inc., which owns the fairgrounds, to decide whether to stop renting space for the gun shows or repay future county aid.
The county has provided several hundred thousand dollars in recent years for fairground renovations. Fairgrounds officials declined to comment yesterday, saying they wanted to review the legislation.
Krasner said county subsidies significantly exceed the rent he pays from $5-a-ticket shows and that he expects to be told that he can no longer hold them.
The gun-show bill divided the council and residents of the county, which stretches from densely populated suburbs near Washington to rural communities in the north where hunting is popular.
Councilman Phil Andrews, a Gaithersburg Democrat, pointed out that the state's strict gun laws require criminal background checks on weapons sales at shows.
Ewing's original proposal was weakened slightly by amendments introduced by Democratic Councilman Isiah Leggett, who broke the council deadlock by proposing language that would allow private groups to hold gun shows if they received no county funds.
He also pushed through additional restrictions that would require gun-show promoters to notify the Police Department 30 days in advance and submit to criminal background checks.