After shootings, routines are anything but

October events canceled, questioned amid anxiety

October 20, 2002|By Jeff Barker | Jeff Barker,SUN STAFF

The haunted house promised "a place of terror" where organizers could "scare innocent victims" with staged electrocutions, dungeons and a mock graveyard outside.

But with a deadly sniper on the loose, the Halloween fright attraction didn't seem like a wise idea to Fairfax County, Va., which ordered the house closed yesterday over the objections of its owner.

Across the Potomac River, in Gaithersburg, a gun show - featuring pump-action and semi-automatic rifles, night sights, handguns and ammunition - went on as scheduled, provoking an outcry from gun-control advocates.

As the Washington region struggles with anxiety over a shooter responsible for nine killings, it must also grapple with sometimes difficult daily decisions over which activities it considers safe and appropriate - and which cross an unwritten line.

Haunted houses seem to fall on the borderline. A few were in operation yesterday, but some - including the one in Fairfax County - were deemed too real-life scary and were at least temporarily shut down.

Montgomery County Police Chief Charles Moose declined yesterday to discuss the process by which the county - as well as other local governments - will decide when to lift bans that have canceled homecoming football games, arts festivals and other outdoor activities.

But it was clear that what was routine in September has, in some cases, become questionable since Oct. 2, when the shooting rampage began. Some events, such as the gun show, fall into a gray area, judging by how citizens are responding to them.

"It's sad that at a moment when our community is still dealing with a madman, the arms merchants think this is acceptable," said Lillian Pubillones Nolan, a Montgomery County gun-safety activist.

The gun show's promoter, Frank Krasner, said yesterday that he couldn't imagine canceling the weekend display in a gymnasium-sized building at the Montgomery County fairgrounds. The event features more than 200 tables of functional and ceremonial guns as well as knives, belt holsters, pistol sleeves and attire.

"For anyone to equate the actions of this sick individual with law-abiding hunters, shooters and collectors - those people are as sick as he is," said Krasner, also a National Rifle Association recruiter.

Attendance at the show yesterday was off about 25 percent from last year, a drop Krasner attributed to concerns about the sniper's remaining at large.

The show was permitted to go on because last year a federal judge struck down a hotly debated county ordinance aimed at banning gun shows at the privately owned fairgrounds.

Kevin Benson, owner of "Harpers Scary Haunted House" in Reston, Va., said his business didn't have the option of staying open yesterday. That's because the house, whose logo bears a gravestone imprinted with "We're Dying to Meet You," sits on park land that he has contracted with the county to use.

Benson said he wanted to stay open - and still hopes to reopen before Halloween - because children may need alternatives to trick-or-treating this year if the sniper remains free.

Benson said the house provides safe fun - like going to a scary movie. "In a movie, people like watching the guy chasing the girls. They know the maniac is not actually in the theater."

His 8,000-square-foot attraction includes a "mad scientist-autopsy room," a medieval-style dungeon and an outdoor "graveyard." The county has expressed concern about people lining up outside to get into the house.

In Gaithersburg, a spokeswoman said she had been getting calls from parents about whether a "haunted" hayride pulled by a tractor will go on as planned. The event, which is organized annually by the Potomac Horse Center, is supposed to begin Thursday but will be canceled if the sniper is not caught by tomorrow, said spokeswoman Arlene Palman.

Representatives of area governments say they will continually review their activities lists in light of developments in the sniper investigation.

"Certainly it's everybody's desire to have outdoor activities," said David Weaver, spokesman for Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan. "We have made a conscious decision to approach this day to day."

If elected officials or organizations seem particularly cautious, that's because "no group wants to be the one that doesn't cancel," said Douglas F. Gansler, the Montgomery County state's attorney.

But Gansler said: "When someone threatens our liberty, the best response we can have is to be defiant and go about our daily lives."

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