Travis County ditches proposed gun show ban

Travis County ditches proposed gun show ban
By Farzad Mashhood and Marty Toohey
Austin American-Statesman
January 15, 2013

Travis County commissioners unanimously voted Tuesday to reverse course on a proposal that would have banned gun shows from county facilities, agreeing to honor an existing contract for nine shows at the Travis County Exposition Center over the next 13 months.

Following an hourlong closed meeting with county attorneys, commissioners said they don’t believe they have the legal authority to ban the shows.

“I take very seriously the idea of abiding by the law. State law prevents this court from doing much of anything on this issue,” Commissioner Sarah Eckhardt said.

Still, Eckhardt and other commissioners said, all gun buyers should pass a background check, something that isn’t required at gun shows.

Since last month’s Newtown, Conn., elementary school shooting of 26 students and staff members, scrutiny nationwide has turned to the so-called “gun show loophole,” part of federal gun laws that allows gun buyers to avoid background checks when making purchases from sellers who aren’t full-time firearms dealers.

Eighty-eight percent of Americans support requiring background checks on all gun purchases at gun shows, according to a Washington Post-ABC News poll released Tuesday and conducted Thursday through Sunday.

It’s an idea with broad support in Texas from both Democrats such as Eckhardt and Republicans such as Jerry Patterson, the Texas land commissioner who as a state senator in 1995 authored the state’s concealed handgun license law.

Austin City Council Member Kathie Tovo said Tuesday she plans to bring a resolution to her colleagues calling for stricter federal gun laws.

The call from the City Council would likely mirror the position of Mayors Against Illegal Guns, of which Austin Mayor Lee Leffingwell is a member, along with 800 or so other mayors around the country, including New York’s Michael Bloomberg.

Austin can take, at most, limited action on the issue, council members said at a meeting of the council’s Public Health and Human Services Committee. Some council members had said they were interested in considering a gun show ban — the Expo Center is on city property, so the city could have some authority over events there — but following a closed meeting with attorneys Tuesday, there seemed to be little movement toward a ban.

“No one is proposing anything that would be illegal or stir up a fight with the (Texas) attorney general and result in a lawsuit,” Council Member Mike Martinez said.

Attorney General Greg Abbott suggested a legal battle last week when he said in a Twitter message, “If Austin or Travis Co. try to ban gun shows they better be ready for a double-barreled lawsuit.”

Deece Eckstein, the county’s intergovernmental relations coordinator, told council members that the county is talking with the Expo Center gun show operator, Saxet Gun Shows, behind closed doors about some issues. He didn’t elaborate on what those issues are.

Saxet hasn’t responded to several calls and emails from the American-Statesman and hasn’t appeared at meetings with the commissioners court.

Ed Scruggs, the Austin Democratic activist who first brought the idea of banning gun shows on county property to the commissioners last month, was among five people speaking in favor of a ban in Tuesday’s commissioners’ meeting; three people spoke against it.

In a statement, Abbott said the county “did the right thing by following the law and continuing to allow gun shows on county property. The city of Austin should do the same.”

The commissioners also voted to require their permission for any proposed events at the Expo Center with “unusually high safety risks.” Previously, county staffers could approve contracts to host events at the Expo Center.

Judge Sam Biscoe said he expects the county to develop requirements for events with safety risks beyond gun shows. “It was clear from legal advice we received that our net needs to be a lot broader, and we need to pick up all events that are more unsafe than others,” Biscoe said.

Biscoe said he would like to see the gun shows require background checks for all purchases, but Saxet would have to agree to do that.

Background checks are done through a federal database not typically accessible to the public. Eckhardt has suggested setting up a station at the entrance of a gun show where prospective gun buyers can get a background check and a record of being approved that the buyer can show to private sellers and dealers.

Commissioners first discussed the proposed ban last week, brought forward by Biscoe after he said he received emails from 200 people asking for a ban of gun shows on county land. Biscoe said Tuesday he has received a roughly equal number of emails for and against gun shows on county property.

The county-run Expo Center has hosted 17 gun shows since November 2010. The nine gun shows planned over the next 13 months in Travis County are expected to bring $128,000 in revenue from rental and other fees.

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