Autumn is in the air, and elections are upon us. Early voting, trimmed to 10 days by the Republicans, begins next week. But first, the State Fair, which starts Thursday.

There are few things I like more than the State Fair. The magic of the Midway. Tiny tots meeting their first goat or steer. I will admit, I’ve been worried about what I’d do if, after paying for my braised turkey leg or BBQ sammitch (hat tip: Barry Saunders), some guy stuck a gun in my ribs and said: “Hand it over. The wallet too.”

You see, I go to the fair unarmed, as law-abiding citizens tend to do, because official fair policy says no guns, weapons or alcohol. But that makes us easy prey for the bad guys, which is why the Republicanswho control the General Assembly by huge majoritiespassed House Bill 937 last year.

HB 937 amends the state’s firearms laws to allow folks with conceal-carry permits to pack heat in places previously off-limits, including “assemblies where a fee is charged for admission.”

As Jeff Welty, a law professor at the UNC School of Government observed, HB 937 establishes the general rule that anyone with a permit “may carry a concealed handgun unless otherwise specifically prohibited by law.”

Some state property is specifically prohibited: The Capitol, the Governor’s Mansion, all courthouses. But not the fair and not the N.C. State Fairgrounds.

There’s also an exception for private propertymovies, bars, coffee shopsbut only if the owner posts a notice saying no guns allowed.

Naturally, then, I understood the act to mean that if I were to be held up at the fair, eager permit-holders would spring to my defense, drawing on the criminal and demanding he surrender on his knees or die in a hail of bullets. Hopefully, no children or animals would be harmed by this exercise of Second Amendment rights.

Superior Court Judge Donald Stephens didn’t see it that way, ruling Monday that allowing firearms at the fair would be “unwise and imprudent” even though it may be what the Republican bill intended.

Stephens thus rejected the pleadings of gun-rights advocates like Paul Valone, president of Grass Roots North Carolina, who went to court asking that the State Fair be ordered to change the rule and let concealed carriers do their thing. Stephens sided with Steve Troxler, the Republican Secretary of Agriculture, who runs the fair and said, heck no.

I’m not here to say whether Stephens was right or wrong about HB 937. I think he was closest to the truth when he called North Carolina’s firearms laws a mess”a quagmire”and complained that while it’s unclear whether they now allow for guns at the Fair, “I honestly believe the legislature did not intend this result.”

Legally, Stephens gave whatever General Assembly is elected next month a chance to rewrite the law before he takes up the case again.

Politically, he rescued the Republicans from disaster.

When the General Assembly passed HB 937, it did so under the spell of people like Valone and the National Rifle Association who truly believe the nation would be safer if everyone were armed to the teeth. I’ll venture that most of the Republicans who voted for it believe the same.

What’s telling in this vein is the public silence of Republican legislators over the past week about what they did or did not intend.

HB 937 was approved in the House on a party-line vote, 73–41, with all 73 yes votes cast by Republicans, including Speaker Thom Tillis. It passed the Senate 32–14, with 31 Republicans and one Democrat in favor.

Tillis, the Republican candidate for U.S. Senate against incumbent Kay Hagan, has had nothing to say about the fair since Troxler and Valone started going at it. Neither, to my knowledge, have any of the Republican legislators in the Triangle who are running for re-election, all of whomwith the exception of Sen. Tamara Barringer, who was absentvoted yes.

Why the reticence?

It’s because, if a Republican comes out against concealed-carry at the fair, they risk alienating the NRA, Grass Roots N.C. and their networks of gun nuts, many single-issue voters. Chances are, an NRA-backed opponent could be running in their next Republican primary.

On the other hand, if they say they’re for guns at the fair, could there be a clearer sign that they’re either screwballs themselves or else too gutless to stand up to the Republican leaders who answer to screwballs?

I’m an issues guy. I’d like to think that when voters go to the polls, their decisions about legislative seats will be based on the big issues of jobs, the economy, women’s rights, minority rights and education. The differences between the Republicans and Democrats are stark in each area.

And in the Tillis-Hagan race, the choice is equally clear. Tillis, as a legislator, backed the whole GOP program of cutting taxes for the rich and corporations while hacking away at school funding and programs for the needy. Hagan is a mushy moderate Democrat, but way better than Tillis.

And yet, I know that many voters have no idea which party is for what, and given how fast Tillis is running away from his recordclaiming, for example, to be pro-public schoolsit’s no surprise that they don’t.

Sometimes, though, an issue cuts through. The bill the Republicans supported could be read as letting guns into the Fair. If Stephens had ruled that way, 10 days of publicity about the GOP’s horrible judgment and people staying away in droves might have followedtaking Tillis down and a bunch of Republican legislators with him.

Stephens, though, is a reasonable man. And he didn’t want guns at the fair on his conscience.

This article appeared in print with the headline “Guns of Dorton.”