Orange County Fair officials have backed away from a request to pre-approve gun show contracts for next year, a would-be effort to circumvent a potential state law banning such expos at the fairgrounds property in Costa Mesa.

On Thursday, officials also struck down the idea of sending a letter to Gov. Gavin Newsom raising concerns over the proposed law, Senate Bill 264, and its anticipated impacts to fairgrounds revenue as the bill awaits Newsom’s signature. 

Both of those decisions came in a vote by a majority of the OC Fair’s Governor-appointed Board of Directors at their Thursday morning meeting. The board moved to take no action on and table the requests.

The day’s discussion grew highly political and, at times, contentious — filled with both gun control and rifle association lobbyists, as well as ideas of public safety and the OC Fair’s economic health.

It was also the first meeting for newly-seated Fair Board Director and high-ranking California Democratic Party official Melahat Rafieit, a “No” on the gun show contracts who Newsom appointed to the vacant board seat just two days before the vote. 

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The Senate bill comes from state Sen. Dave Min (D-Irvine), who spoke at Thursday’s meeting and warned fair officials against the contract pre-approval requests by the OC Fair gun shows’ contracted promoter company, Crossroads of the West Gun Shows. 

Min and other gun show critics on Thursday said the fair would set a troubling precedent in pre-approving any public contracts, and voiced alarm over the legal sale of firearm components without serial numbers, used to build untraceable “ghost guns,” at these local shows.

“The California Bureau of Firearms has repeatedly found evidence of so-called straw sales and other sales of unlicensed guns at gun shows, including at the OC fairgrounds,” Min said in public comment. 

He added gun shows, with or without ghost gun parts, still contribute to gun violence, and pointed to recent local incidents like the mass shooting in Orange and shooting death of Aiden Leos on the 55 Freeway. 

Min eventually exceeded his allowable time for public comment  — which the board extended at his request — during the morning meeting, and continued to speak over the objections of board members.

“I think you’ve made your point very clear,” said Fair Board Director Doug LaBelle, acting as the chair of the meeting at one point, as Min kept talking.

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Crossroads, according to fair staff, had apparently agreed to look into discontinuing the sale of “precursor” ghost gun parts in exchange for the contract preapprovals.

Those preapprovals, if granted by the Fair Board, would have qualified Crossroads for an exemption under Min’s bill which would take effect in January, 2022.

Though, given an absence in federal regulation over those gun components, the sale of precursor parts is still technically legal, even on state property. 

“Yes, it is all legal — those guns that look like a gun, shoot like a gun, and kill like a gun, but are totally untraceable,” said Rose Ann Sharp, the founder of gun control advocacy group NeverAgainCA, during Thursday’s meeting.  

Sharp added that fair officials, if they voted to pre-approve the Crossroads contracts, “are sending a signal that we value the sale of firearms above the lives of Americans.”

Supporters of the gun show — community enthusiasts and fair board members alike — argued the expo has little to no role in pumping firearms or gun violence into the community while the ban wouldn’t really reform gun control on a comprehensive level. 

“This ban is not changing or providing any comprehensive change to gun control,” said Fair Board Director and Chair Natalie Rubalcava-Garcia, also a top executive at the OC Business Council. 

She was a vote in favor of raising concerns over the ban to Newsom, but left the meeting before the board voted on the gun show contract preapprovals.

“It’s merely a superficial way for an elected official (Min) to declare victory on one of his campaign promises,” she added.

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Tiffany Cheuvront of the California Rifle & Pistol Association said the OC Fair “is not a location where criminals are getting their firearms.”

“Not one criminal activity in Orange County is linked to the Orange County gun show and part of that is because this board has security measures in place, the promoters have security measures in place … to say anything else is just completely disingenuous,” she said.

Gibran Stout, founder of the OC Vaulting club at the fairgrounds equestrian center, said many events at the fairgrounds “foster wild, loud, and unruly behavior.”

“This is often seen during sports car rallies and concerts, as well as the (annual) fair itself. However, I can honestly say that none of this behavior has ever been observed during Crossroads events, and I usually don’t even know it’s happening,” Stout said.

Other speakers pointed out the gun shows have provided the fair with millions in revenue, and that recouping such losses as a result of the ban won’t happen overnight — though the OC Fair is one of California’s largest and most profitable, sitting on tens of millions in cash reserves.

The Crossroads gun shows have made about $7 million in total revenue at the OC Fair since 1996, according to newly-updated data provided by OC Fair spokesperson Terry Moore on Thursday.

Board Director Ashleigh Aitken, a vocal critic of the contract pre-approval requests, said it was a necessary loss before the vote:

“Yes, change is hard. But sometimes change is the right thing to do.”

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