On the first weekend of their general election campaigns, a coalition of Democratic candidates running for state and federal office huddled on a blistering street corner in Miami with their sights set on a familiar target: firearms.
A spate of school shootings across the nation in recent months, and the activism that emerged from South Florida after 17 students and educators were killed at a Parkland high school on Valentine’s Day, reignited the issue of guns in America as Democrats push to flip Tallahassee and Washington.
And on Saturday, with one of the largest gun shows looming behind them, the Democrats stood with a small group of protesters and campaign staff on the corner of Southwest 107th Avenue and Coral Way, near the entrance to the Miami-Dade County Youth Fair.
It was an attempt, they said, to pressure the county fairgrounds into divesting from Florida Gun Shows, a statewide operation that has held its weapons expos on the site for more than three decades, according to its owner.
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But the candidates used the gun-show rally as an opportunity to launch into their platforms against gun violence, which include restricting the sale of semi-automatic long guns.
“I find it extremely ironic that the county fair, where we bring children to the fair, is right now hosting a gun show,” said Debbie Mucarsel-Powell, a Democrat running against incumbent Carlos Curbelo in Florida’s 26th Congressional District. “If the Republicans in Congress like Curbelo are not willing to take a stance, to have the political will and courage to do the right thing to keep our community safe, then we need to change Congress, and that’s why I’m here today.”
Conceding that the Miami-Dade fair has full autonomy over the property under a county lease, lead organizer Javier Fernandez — a state representative running for re-election in House District 114 — argued that a gun show should not operate on county land, especially on property that opens up to children during the annual fair.
“There’s nothing we can do legally to compel them to change their policy [or] their behavior,” Fernandez said. “That’s why we’re out here trying to mobilize some focus on this issue, get them to voluntarily do what we think is right.”
Fernandez was joined by Mucarsel-Powell; state Sen. Annette Taddeo, running for re-election in Senate District 40; state Sen.-elect Jason Pizzo, who defeated Sen. Daphne Campbell in the primary; Jeffrey Solomon, a candidate for District 115 in the state Senate; congressional candidate for District 27 Donna Shalala; and South Miami Mayor Philip Stoddard.
“This is about community safety, this is about allowing our communities to grow,” said Shalala, President Bill Clinton’s secretary of Health and Human Services when the administration passed an assault weapons ban in 1994. “The idea of putting together youth and sponsoring a gun show is unacceptable and frankly, this is a public place and public entities ought not to subsidizing gun shows.”
But Khalid Akkawi, the owner of Florida Gun Shows, said the lawmakers had no legal standing to push him off the fairground. And he said the rally struck him as purely political. If they tried, he said, he’d pursue legal action.
“Why is it that those 25, 30 people out there have a louder voice than the 3,000 people in here?” Akkawi said. “They’re protesting the gun show. It’s their First Amendment right and we respect that. Just like there’s a first amendment, there’s also a Second Amendment.”
In a statement to the Miami Herald, the Youth Fair separated itself from the gun show, saying that it does not choose the content of the shows or events it hosts.
“Under our lease with Miami-Dade County, Miami-Dade County Fair & Exposition, Inc. (The Youth Fair & Exposition) provides space at the fairgrounds for shows and events that have been issued a permit by Miami-Dade County,” the statement reads. ”The Youth Fair is not affiliated with and does not control the content of any of these shows or events.”
Akkawi said his contract at the fairgrounds has been renewed every year since he took over the gun show four years ago. He has show dates booked in advance up to 2025.
He added that his gun shows feature a booth where a representative from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, a federal department that issues federal firearm licenses, educates attendees on gun safety.
Akkawi said that every gun dealer at his expos is federally licensed and requires background checks.
“Anybody selling guns here has to have a federal license,” he said. “There’s absolutely no private sales here.”
Fernandez said Akkawi’s contract at the fairgrounds runs through January 2019, and that he would lobby against the renewal.
“These gun shows provide them over $300,000 in recurring revenue a year,” Fernandez said. “I don’t think money should be the metric by which we decide what’s best for our kids. This needs to stop.”
Shalala likened hosting the gun show in a space typically reserved for families and kids to having a “cigarette show in a school.”
“These kind of gun shows is where people buy high ammunition guns, all kinds of bump stocks and big magazines, all kinds of things that we don’t want our streets to have,” Taddeo said. “And then they turn around and go into other neighborhoods and resell them. This is exactly why we don’t want this in our community.”
Mucarsel-Powell, whose father was killed by an armed criminal in Ecuador, said forming a united front could potentially force the youth fair’s hand.
“For me, it’s never been a political issue,” she said. “I lost my dad to gun violence. This is a personal issue.”
Akkawi has run into similar challenges in Fort Lauderdale, where the War Memorial Auditorium gun show has operated for 30 years.
The City Commission decided that it would not permit the gun show to return to the city-owned auditorium once its license agreement expires in November. Akkawi said he plans to mount a legal challenge.
“Are guns controversial? Absolutely,” he said.
Plus, “it’s an election year.”