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After Thousand Oaks mass shooting, anti-gun activists target gun shows

After Thousand Oaks mass shooting, anti-gun activists target gun shows
Gun enthusiasts check out semi-automatic rifle parts at a 2015 gun show at the Del Mar fairgrounds run by Crossroads of the West. The company runs shows across California, including those at the Ventura County fairgrounds. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

The morning after a gunman killed her son, Telemachus, during a rampage at Borderline Bar in Thousand Oaks, Susan Orfanos made what has become a familiar demand following mass shootings.

“I don’t want prayers. I don’t want thoughts,” Orfanos told TV cameras last month. “I want gun control. No more guns.”

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California, however, already has the nation’s strictest gun control laws, so in Ventura County, anti-gun sentiment has turned elsewhere: gun shows.

The county’s last gun show of the year is scheduled for this weekend at the Ventura County Fairgrounds. But even as this show moves forward, the board that oversees the state-owned fairgrounds is hesitating about what to do in 2019.

Facing public pressure, the eight-person board voted Nov. 27 to allow gun shows in February and April, but declined to approve three shows planned for later in the year until it crafts a policy on guns.

The decision, which has divided the board, reflects a brewing local backlash against firearms following the mass shooting Nov. 7 that took 12 lives. But, experts say, it also speaks to a larger, years-long leftward shift in Ventura County, a place once considered a conservative stronghold.

After November’s midterm elections, every member of Congress who represents Ventura County is now a Democrat for the first time in recent memory. More county residents are registered Democrats than Republicans.

“Ten years ago, almost all the elected positions were Republican, and now you have this clear inversion — it’s really kind of shocking and not easy to explain,” said Herbert Gooch III, an emeritus politics professor at California Lutheran University in Thousand Oaks.

Yet, there is little polling or data on how locals, regardless of political party, feel about gun control. The county, particularly Thousand Oaks, tends to oppose regulation, suggesting residents might not be in favor of limiting the availability of firearms, he said.

For the last decade, Utah-based Crossroads of the West has hosted gun shows in Ventura County. Across California, the company also puts on shows in Costa Mesa, San Bernardino, Ontario and Daly City, as well as in Nevada, Arizona and Utah. But the board that oversees the Del Mar fairgrounds in San Diego County recently voted to suspend the company’s gun shows there in 2019.

The two-day shows in Ventura County typically attract 4,000 people, according to Rob Templeton, vice president of Crossroads of the West, and each show brings in about $100,000 in revenue. Gun sales comply with state laws, he said, adding that vendors also sell backpacks, jewelry and beef jerky. The shows are marketed as family-friendly, with kids 12 and younger allowed in free.

“I understand that people are frustrated and angry and upset — not just people who don’t like guns, but people who do like guns,” Templeton said. “Sadly, some people, they don’t know really where to turn and so they kind of lash out at gun shows.”

The resistance to gun shows in Ventura County began earlier this year, after the shooting at a high school in Parkland, Fla. But it picked up steam following the Borderline massacre, said Janet Eckhouse, president of the county's chapter of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. Since the shooting, more than 50 people have joined the chapter, she said.

“It just doesn’t seem right that the state with the strongest gun laws in the country should be profiting from gun shows,” said Eckhouse. “We’re chipping away at it.”

Last week, people wearing orange shirts labeled with the words “Never Again” packed into a Ventura County supervisors meeting to support a mostly symbolic gun show ban. Many said the Borderline shooting had shocked them into action.

“I’ve been following the issue for a long time, but I woke up — I thought to myself, my god, that’s right around the corner,” said activist Suz Montgomery, who lives in Ventura. “We live in violent times, but this is something we can all do as a community and stop it at a local level.”

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Sup. Steve Bennett, who introduced the motion, said banning gun shows at the fairgrounds was a small way to stand up to the national gun lobby and prevent future tragedies.

“It’s not that we have more disturbed people,” said Bennett, who represents the city of Ventura. “We have a more pervasive gun culture.”

But David Spady, whose son survived the Borderline shooting, told the supervisors that he did not want gun shows to become politicized.

“What happened at Borderline has nothing to do with gun shows,” said Spady, who lives in Camarillo. “It’s an opportunity for what I think is an improving of public safety by having access … to firearms.”

The board voted 3-2 to support prohibiting gun shows at the fairgrounds. The decision remains with the fair board.

Things are shifting in Ventura County, said Cal State Channel Islands political science professor Tim Allison. In 1999, Los Angeles County banned gun shows, yet there was no similar push in Ventura, which was seen as a Republican bastion similar to Orange County.

But in 2008, more Democrats registered to vote than Republicans in Ventura County, driven in part by an increasingly diverse population. The county has been considered “purple” for the past six years, Allison said, and veered further left in 2018, fueled by resistance to President Trump.

“You wake up one morning and you say, ‘Wow, Ventura County no longer has a Republican in Congress,’ ” he said. “I think it’s fair to make the claim now that Ventura County is now a blue county.”

Yet Gooch, the professor at California Lutheran, said that even if more people in the county are voting for Democrats, they tend to be people who left Los Angeles seeking more autonomy. In particular, residents in the eastern part of the county, which includes Thousand Oaks, remain more conservative.

“I don’t think Thousand Oaks itself ... would probably be very happy with a lot of gun control,” he said.

When news of the Borderline shooting began to spread last month, Elias Toufexis’ family and friends begged him to move back to Canada, where he lived until a year ago.

But Toufexis, a 42-year-old actor, said he feels gun violence is inescapable. Six months ago, there was a mass shooting at a bar in the Toronto neighborhood where he used to live.

Those shootings have jarred him, as has hearing his two kids, 8- and 6-years-old, swap stories about classroom active shooter drills. He said he felt a little nervous dropping them at school after the Thousand Oaks shooting.

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“It’s in the back of my mind,” Toufexis said. “It’s in the back of every American’s mind.”

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