Harrisburg pulls police from NRA show security detail

Written by Emily Previti/Keystone Crossroads | Jan 8, 2016 3:14 PM

Harrisburg Mayor Eric Papenfuse talks to reporters about his decision to pull police from the customary security detail for the Great Outdoor Show starting Feb. 6 at the state Farm Show Complex. (Emily Previti/Keystone Crossroads)

(Harrisburg) - The Great American Outdoor Show's brought tens of millions of tourism dollars to the Capitol region for 25 years.

It's also sponsored by the NRA.

This February, Harrisburg Mayor Eric Papenfuse says police won't provide security inside the Farm Show Complex, as is customary.

Papenfuse says his decision is tied to the NRA's support of the state law that made it easier to sue Pennsylvania cities over their firearms ordinances. 

"It's no secret that the NRA has worked against the city's interests repeatedly over the past year, causing us to spend tens of thousands of dollars to defend common sense gun ordinances," Papenfuse said.

Pennsylvania's Act 192 was short-lived, overturned last fall within 10 months of its effective date.

But it prompted about 100 municipalities to repeal their gun ordinances, in an effort to reduce their exposure to lawsuits. Some of those that didn't were sued, including Lower Merion Township and the cities of Philadelphia, Lancaster, Pittsburgh and Harrisburg.

The NRA itself didn't sue Harrisburg, but it backed the state law that opened the door for litigation.

More than $100,000 later, the capital city's still tied up in court over cases brought by other guns rights groups.

Papenfuse says the legal issue wasn't the only reason the security detail's been canceled.

"It clearly influenced the decision, but I think it was the NRA which chose to sort of walk away from promises it made to support its host community," Papenfuse said Thursday.

Police Chief Thomas Carter says the organization made good on its verbal commitment last year by donating a $50,000 squad car to the department, but this year rebuffed his suggestions including using money to pay for gun safety programs for city youth.

NRA says it offered $25,000 to the city, but was turned down.

The organization also contends its pledge wasn't to the city, specifically, and notes it pays amusement taxes and for a traffic detail each year. In all, NRA's paid $600,000 to the city since 2014, according to a statement released Friday by the organization.

The statement also explains that the NRA Foundation's by-laws don't allow the multi-year financial commitment Papenfuse sought as part of an "all or nothing" deal.

This year, the National Civil War Museum will get some money. So will three sport shooting clubs, including one that runs hunting trips for chronically ill children and wounded veterans, according to a statement from the NRA.

Papenfuse's spokeswoman declined comment on funding going to the museum, which has been a source of consternation for the first-term mayor. 

Papenfuse also says the public's better served with police on the street instead of inside the Farm Show Complex.

Indeed, the mayor addressed the media about the NRA issue before moderating a panel on youth violence Thursday. Two homicides had occurred within the past week, at that point. Some people left the event early, in response to reports of a shooting west of the high school.

Papenfuse says a small city so best with neighborhood violence isn't an appropriate venue for events focused on firearms, and that guns aren't integral of an outdoor show.

But as problematic as violent crime might be in Harrisburg, it's been consistent for years. Police staffing hasn't changed much either.

What's more, says Detective Jason Brinker, is that officers work event security during scheduled time off. They've have never been yanked from an event like this, says Brinker, who heads the city's police union.

And there's never been an argument over pay for police during event security details (typically between $20 and $50 per hour, at the discretion of the event producer), Brinker says.

Papenfuse was pushing to raise the $30 wage previously paid to officers working the outdoor show.

Brinker says the union's considering taking the city to court or arbitration over the decision to prevent police from working the event. 

NRA spokesman Jeremy Greene says the organization's reaching out to state and capitol police about providing security.

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