Joe Gerth was strolling through the aisles of the National Gun Day show at the Kentucky Exposition Center on Saturday afternoon when he did a double take.
Gerth, a metro columnist with the Louisville Courier-Journal, had stopped by the show to do research for his next piece: Earlier that week, a gunman had gone to a Kroger grocery store in nearby Jeffersontown, Ky., and fatally shot two black customers. Gerth was hoping to interview gun dealers at the expo about whether they feared the firearms they sold could end up in the wrong hands.
But now, visible above the hundreds of vendor tables, Gerth spotted what appeared to be an old Ku Klux Klan robe being sold — for $695 — among the firearms and gun accessories.
He snapped a photo and posted it on social media.
“Here’s a nice little item you can pick up at the gun show,” Gerth tweeted before moving on.
Before long, however, he had come across other troubling items: “Original Christmas ornaments” painted silver, red and black, adorned with swastikas. At another booth was a red and white tank top, also emblazoned with a swastika.
Gerth tweeted that he was “appalled” at the KKK and Nazi paraphernalia being sold at the show, especially given the Kroger shooting just days before — and the shooting that left 11 dead in a Pittsburgh synagogue, the deadliest attack on Jews in U.S. history, that very morning. The Kroger shooting is being investigated as a potential hate crime.
Kentucky events and convention officials quickly agreed with Gerth, saying they were also “horrified” to learn vendors had been selling such items on state convention center grounds, as the Courier-Journal first reported.
“Once we found out [those items] were there, it was really super shock and disbelief,” Mark Lynn, the chairman of the Kentucky State Fair Board, told The Washington Post. “Personally, I find these things exceptionally offensive.”
Lynn said he and others on the state fair board, which oversees Kentucky Venues, are planning to propose a policy that would prohibit vendors from selling items of “known hate” at future expo and convention center events.
“I’m going to stand up and defend your rights to your freedom as much as humanly possible, but with every right to freedom comes a responsibility,” Lynn said. “If you want to wear it on your shirt, or put it on your car or truck, or tattoo it on your head or whatever, that’s up to you. But if you want to sell articles such as this [on our property] … then we have the rights to say, ‘Yes, you can; no, you can’t.’ ”
Lynn said the state board in 2016 drafted a similar policy prohibiting the sale, handout or display of anything including the Confederate flag. He added it is still working on how to word such a policy to exclude things such as KKK and Nazi paraphernalia.
“I don’t want to blanket say ‘any or all hate items’ because that’s too broad,” Lynn said. “I’m not even sure what that will mean in 12 months.”
The next state fair board meeting is scheduled for Nov. 15, and a new policy could apply to shows occurring after that date. However, he said it was too late to do anything about the vendors who sold KKK and Nazi items at the National Gun Show, which only lasted the weekend.
Gerth said he picked up the vendor name only for the booth with the “original Christmas ornaments” — Walter Kanzler Guns and Militaria based in Key Largo, Fla. When reached by email, Kanzler said he did not wish to comment, other than to write “Banning History is not the answer.”
In an interview with the Courier-Journal, Kanzler defended the items he sells as having historical value.
“I don’t want to suppress history,” Kanzler told the newspaper. “I have no interest in political statements. I’m not into hate or anything like that. These things are a part of history.”
Gerth has since written a follow-up column in which he argues that it’s not a matter of free speech.
“This is a matter of commercialism and what can be sold on state property and whether people should be able to peddle this sort of intimidation and hate in a building we all own,” Gerth wrote.