The future of the SHOT Show

I’m not going.  I just decided.  For the first time in more than 20 years, I’ll miss a SHOT Show.

I’m skipping because of the mask mandate, pure and simple.  As you have read in prior months, I was an optimist that our firearms industry culture is on the free-thinking side and not too trusting of governments, especially those dominated by politicians who want to take our guns.  NASGW proved me right, and I trumpeted it in this space.

But last week beginning Thursday (less than 2 weeks before SHOT), there was a weird shift.  The Facebook gun industry crowd started gossiping about how more big exhibitors were dropping out.  The NSSF’s Chris Dolnack posted a cheery post that “Business is booming” at CES in Las Vegas this week, showing how shows are going on and benefiting all the exhibitors and attendees.  At the same time, his promotional post referred to “naysayers [who] talk of doom and gloom” which conveyed a sense that there might well some underlying concerns by those in the know (which I’m not).

But all I saw in the CES photos was a sea of masks.  Some people talk of “sheep” and “face diapers” but I don’t fault those who must or want to attend, and who comply with mandates.  I wondered wishfully whether CES attendees are perhaps more obedient than gun guys, but finally had to admit to myself that this had to be the result of strict enforcement that was happily absent at NASGW.

I shared Chris’ CES mask images, and pressed my Facebook friend Chris on what enforcement to expect, and he replied tersely: “It will be enforced.”  Which sounds worse if you read it in the accent of my German ancestors.  I pressed about who and where it will be enforced, and was pointed to Jim Shepherd’s article “Tales from Two Cities” on The Outdoor Wire.  The money quote from that was:

“SHOT Show will definitely have a mask mandate. It will be enforced. There’s even a “ladder of escalation” in place for offenders. Warnings, fines, and either removal (for individuals) or shutdowns (for booths). If there’s “mass non-compliance,” the entire SHOT Show could be shut down-for a day- or in its entirety. The same rules are in place for all the trade events in Las Vegas the week of SHOT.”

Jim apparently credits The Nevada Gaming Commission, Clark County and Las Vegas officials with the ability to determine better than free individuals what constitute suitable precautions during a pandemic, and a seriousness about safety precautions, and intolerance of “scofflaws.”  Jim and I also part ways when he writes that “taking steps to protect [employees] may infuriate the people who have continued to ignore the virus,” because plenty of us oppose mandates are certainly not ignoring the virus.  Jim does masterfully defeat the “straw man” when he writes: “Many people believed -or hoped – that much of the uncertainty that plagued 2021 would magically disappear when we put out a new desk calendar.”  No one I know thought this has anything to do with magic or the calendar.

This doesn’t sit well with me, as I think that half the nation that scoffs at the Biden/CDC/Big City mandates are doing just fine, have enough information to protect ourselves, and can decide for ourselves as grownups.  But I credit Jim for acknowledging that the ATA (Archery) Show in Kentucky had the same mask-mandate non-compliance as our NASGW show last October, and presumably this weekend’s Dallas Safari Club show down the road from me.  And yet no suggestion that a lack of masks led to any harm at any of these events.  There’s something of a blur between whether it’s really about “safety precautions” for our own good, or avoiding harsh enforcement, whether or not justified.

I really hope when Jim wrote: “But do everyone a favor and keep your opinion on masks to yourself,” that he meant when your encounter him wearing a mask, don’t harangue him for it, which is simply asking for polite behavior.  If he meant not speaking out against arguably ineffectual authoritarian mandates that deserve protest, then we part ways.  Jim didn’t respond after several days to my email asking for clarification.  Maybe I shouldn’t start a quarrel with someone who buys ink in bigger barrels than I do, but when it’s the response from the NSSF to my question about enforcement and mask policy, it takes on more weight.

I had told myself that if the show had the on-floor enforcement that required me to repeatedly remask all day, I’d get on the next flight home.  I get too irritated with that kind of thing to be in the frame of mind for great meetings and fellowship that the SHOT Show should be all about.

I should add that I’m confident that I’m not an oddball in our industry with my aversion to mask mandates.  My own polling reported here recently shows 80% object to such mandates and are less likely to attend any event that enforces them.  Maybe the big kahunas who don’t have to fly commercial and spend most of their time in private booth conference rooms out of the view of the enforcers are more comfortable living with mask mandates.  Frankly, the CEOs are understandably more risk averse because no one gets fired for being a little too careful, only for a disaster that could have been avoided in hindsight.  But the owners of the small and medium-sized companies that I’m hearing from are almost universally exasperated by mandates.

And I’m reading a vague campaign to blame genuine medical risk concerns for a disappointing show, without acknowledging the widespread aversion to living under the thumb of leftist authoritarians for a week, while pumping money into their dysfunction government.  It’s dangerous for our industry not to face reality.  Be wary of reports stating that companies “cited Covid risks” for not participating normally.  My understanding is that giving that reason instead of mandate objections makes a big difference with refunds and booth priorities.  Also note that two prominent companies that pulled out (Sig and Beretta) have seats on the NSSF Board of Directors, so there may be other pressures and motivations in play.

Who Has Our Backs?

The NSSF leadership is in an impossible situation, forced to do business with the devil, tied up in contracts in jurisdictions that hate our freedoms, and having no power to negotiate around mandates.  BUT…I’d feel more sympathetic to the NSSF if they at least offered something that told members that they were on our side, not that of the local democrat governments.  A little signal that they weren’t happy either, like: “We believe our members have the right to make their own medical choices, and we oppose mask mandates. We have done all we can on behalf of the liberties of our members, and still face an unwanted mask mandate imposed by local regulations and enforced by local authorities. We are also working to locate suitable sites for future SHOT Shows that are more respectful of our members’ liberties, especially to ensure medical privacy and freedom of choice without ever being subject to vaccine passports.  Like most of our members, we are not happy to be subjected to the mandates in Las Vegas.

They’re not happy either, are they?  (Crickets) Are they?  Who can tell?  I would really have hoped to see some signal that they’re fighting for us, instead of pointing to the threat of enforcement.  I recall 20 years ago when semi-auto rifles were NOT embraced by the SHOT mainstream, and seemed to be hidden or ghettoized in “military/LEO” sections that are now among the most desired locations.  Belt-fed?  Forget it.  I personally recall a company owner complaining then that “those AK guys are ruining it for us.”  But leadership wisely recognized the trend, and I’m hopeful that there will be equal responsiveness to members’ priorities in modern times.

I’d guess that among the dozens of Directors from across the nation (a couple are with clients of mine, and I haven’t discussed any of this with them), there are some differences of opinion, and there probably have been some spirited discussions about these matters.  I know they must have seen their own polling in which many of us wrote in our answer to the unasked question about opposing mandates – they didn’t even ask.  Even if the organization is located in Connecticut, where social circles, PTA meetings, and Country Clubs must have a political and regulatory atmosphere very different from the Red States most of us inhabit, I see that there are many NSSF directors from states with a very different reality from New England and Las Vegas, so those perspective must have been heard.

It does raise the question of whether it’s time for the NSSF to move to a friendlier location.  The companies that made New England the historic heart of the gun industry have fled south.  May I suggest Dallas as having the nation’s best airport access, reasonable cost of living, and decent year-round weather?  There’s a reason why so many Fortune 500 companies with a nationwide presence locate their headquarters here.  I’ll be happy to host the first exploratory delegation’s celebration dinner.  Y’all would make good neighbors.

Speak of the Devil…

I wrote above that the NSSF has the unenviable task of being forced to do business with the devil in the form of Democrat authoritarians.  But at some point, it becomes a choice.  There may be contracts that could be broken if there’s the will to fight.  There are the compromises that come with second-choice venues lacking the capacity and comfort we all value.  It’s a lot more work to having a roving location for a trade show than to have the drill down (and booth locations memorized) at a familiar location, even with its faults.

But at some point (and I think we’re past it) it’s time to move on, and get out of a bad relationship.  The SHOT Show needs to be in a Red State that has shown reasonable and restrained policies respectful of our freedoms.  How they handled Covid signals what to expect from Las Vegas in the future.  Will it be vaccine passports next year?  Is there a contingency plan for that plausible scenario in Las Vegas?  Don’t forget that the Mandalay Massacre gave Las Vegas Leftists and their Casino Cronies the excuse to deny our right to keep and bear arms when attending SHOT.  How much more will we put up with?

Where to?

We all already agree never to spend a penny in anti-freedom locations like California, New York, and Chicago.  The small-city venues for NRA and NASGW really can’t handle the SHOT Show.  Dallas and Houston lack adequate hotel facilities and convention floor space.  Orlando is a long haul for half the nation, but probably the clear choice.

There’s also a real risk to the SHOT Show event and the important organization it helps to fund (I’m not talking about the Las Vegas Teamsters).  We may be at a crossroads, with some worrisome paths ahead.  There are always the usual grumblers about exhibiting costs and benefits, but a year off showed some fraction I hear from that the show is no longer the necessity it once was.  At least not every year, nor at the same scale.  With modern marketing and communication tools, we’ve proven to ourselves that real business can be done remotely.  I adopted video conferencing for the first time, and find that when you’ve met face to face on the screen, there’s not the same necessity to “meet at SHOT” to cement the relationship and build the trust needed for important matters.  Still nice, but not essential.  I couldn’t have built my place as a newcomer in the industry without the SHOT Show, and my startup clients need the show too.  But once established, it might not be the same necessity.  The institution needs to be relevant to changing times.

Scaling down the show by half so it can fit in smaller venues in friendly states will slash revenue and the good it can do for our industry, even if large booths could be scaled down and borderline exhibitors.  Segmenting the show into smaller elements with different subjects loses the critical mass.  But a secondary “SHOT Mini” show serving the newcomers, suppliers, and the other special elements that get the “Pop-Up” treatment might have its place, especially for newcomers on the budget and making last minute decisions to exhibit.  There’s dramatic talk in social media about an implausible “National Divorce” that becomes at least a scenario to contemplate:  SHOT Red in Dallas, and SHOT Blue in Chicago?

I wish I had the magic bullet to suggest, and don’t envy those at the helm of an organization in these troublesome circumstances.  Meanwhile, I invite everyone reading this to get in touch and schedule a “Virtual Booth Visit” before, during, or after the show.  It’s no charge, just like a visit to your SHOT Show booth, and we can catch up, answer your questions, and talk about the year ahead.

See you in Houston for the NRA Show Memorial Day weekend!

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About the Author: Ben Langlotz

Ben Langlotz is the nation’s leading firearms patent and trademark attorney, and the author of Bulletproof Firearms Business: The Legal Guide to Success Under Fire. He is trusted by more firearms industry companies than any other lawyer or law firm in the nation, and is consistently ranked at the top of all attorneys in securing gun patents and gun trademarks.