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Convention Centers Wrestle with Weapons Rules


Oceanside, CA – In the wake of multiple mass shootings across the US, convention center operators and show organizers face a challenging environment when it comes to allowing guns at public facilities or events.

Those issues are playing out in still-unresolved ways in Tucson, AZ and Grand Rapids, MI. They aptly illustrate the balancing act that has evolved among states, cities, venues, show organizers, exhibitors and attendees concerning what types of weapons are allowed at public buildings and events and who can have them. In addition, the very definition of “public building” is subject to interpretation.

A recent situation at the DeVos Place in Grand Rapids illustrates the challenge. At a Women’s Expo in March staged by Kohler Expos, security guards told representatives of Michigan Open Carry Inc. (MOC), and Michigan Gun Owners to disarm or leave the premises. The Open Carry group claims the guards were hired by convention center manager SMG. Typically, show organizers and venues set their own policies about guns.

Tom Lambert, President of Michigan Open Carry, said the group has attended other events staged by Kohler with no issues. He said they were at the show to help educate attendees about personal safety. “We don’t participate in an event that doesn’t let us carry,” Lambert said. The group believed that there was a policy in place for other facilities owned and managed by the Grand Rapids-Kent County Convention/Arena Authority (CAA), but that the policy did not mention the convention center specifically.

The group was denied the opportunity to present their case to the CAA, Lambert said, so they believed a lawsuit was the only solution. The lawsuit asks for judicial clarification about whether the existing gun ban applies to convention centers, as those facilities are not specifically mentioned in the law.

After the March 11 incident, SMG said in a news release that it would post weapons ban signage at both DeVos Place and the DeVos Performance Hall, similar to those posted at Van Andel Arena, also operated under the CAA. Word of the notices to be posted was attributed to SMG regional manager Rich MacKeigan. At that time. MacKeigan said it was the first time the gun ban issue was raised in the 12 years of DeVos Place’s existence. Neither SMG nor Kohler replied to requests for comment for this story.

Meanwhile, Tucson faces a different kind of dilemma. The validity of a recent city council vote to ban any weapon capable of firing 10 rounds or more from being sold at the convention center is in question. That action was an amendment to a 2013 city law requiring background checks at all gun shows on city property that was upheld by the courts.

Tucson Convention Center General Manager Glenn Grabski said that city policy now requires anyone wanting to offer gun sales there would be subject to the background check. “It’s a no-gun facility,” he said.

Now a new state law, that takes effect in August, forbids cities from enacting gun sale regulations that are more stringent than the state law. And therein lies the rub.

Tucson officials and gun rights advocates disagree on the interpretation of those laws. Tucson city council member Steve Kozachik told Tucson News KVOA that he believes the weapons ban will stand because it previously has been found to not apply to the way the city manages events at the convention center.

Arizona Citizens Defense League Co-Founder Charles Heller disagrees. He said the pending state legislation would place severe monetary penalties on any city found guilty of trying to enforce any local law that is stronger than similar state laws. He also said that Tucson would likely be forced into bankruptcy if such penalties were levied.

Grabski said if it comes down to the fine-line interpretations between city and state, he’d take direction from the city attorney on such matters.

The whole thing could be a moot point in Tucson, since the Tucson Convention Center hasn’t hosted a gun show since the background check rule was passed three years ago. A glance through the events calendar suggests that most upcoming events are not ones that would likely have weapons vendors. “Other nearby facilities host (such shows),” Grabski said, “but we’re not marketing to them.”

That this is a sensitive issue for venues and show organizers was apparent as spokespersons for DeVos Place, Kohler Expos, and TucsonCity Councildid not return calls or emails requesting comment. But the random acts of gun violence prevalent of late may force more public/private entities to decide if and when weapons can be present during any public event.

Reach Glenn Grabski at (520) 791-4101 or; Tom Lambert at (586) 913-1662 or; Charles Heller at (520) 870-2700 or

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