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Guns & Ammo ... and Austin Politics

The state of gun control in Travis County

By Mike Kanin, Fri., Jan. 18, 2013

A gun rights rally outside 
Austin Police headquarters in 2010
A gun rights rally outside Austin Police headquarters in 2010
Photo by John Anderson

Texas' entry into the post-Newtown massacre gun debate has been predictably ... Texan. As most state officeholders were gearing up for what they see as a hearty defense of the Second Amendment, the local wing-nut contingent burst onto the national stage when Alex Jones did his best Sam Kinison impersonation for CNN host Piers Morgan.

Locally, too, Austin municipalities are jockeying for position. The Travis County Commissioners Court kicked around the idea of a moratorium on gun shows at the county's Exposition Center (which sits on city-owned land). On Tuesday, however, commissioners decided to maintain the current contract with Saxet Gun Shows through 2013. Word is that they will continue to review the matter. At City Hall, the issue was claimed by the City Council's Public Health and Human Ser­vices Committee (chaired by Mike Martin­ez), where discussion Tuesday afternoon ran the range of possible responses, but did not yet formulate specific recommendations.

Austin City Council Member Laura Mor­ri­son – who sits on the PHHS Committee with Martinez and Chris Riley – requested that it take up the issue, and in principle is looking toward something beyond a gun show ban, from a public health perspective. "In the wake of the Sandy Hook tragedy, I believe keeping our children safe is a public health issue," Morrison wrote in an email. "It's imperative that we take a holistic view on the issue of gun safety and responsible gun ownership in our community in order to develop a comprehensive plan moving forward," she continued. "For example, we need to thoroughly understand the state laws that are in place, what policies other cities have implemented, what education is needed to promote safety and responsible gun ownership, the potential for gun show bans at publicly owned facilities, as well as other areas of concern. I see the discussion at next week's PHHS subcommittee as an important first step in developing a thoughtful comprehensive approach to a safer community."

Martinez also indicated that he would be ready to take more comprehensive action – if the city can do so within the bounds of Texas law. "If we could find something that we felt like ... would make a difference and is within our legal [purview], then yes – I think I could be in favor of it."

It's hard to argue against keeping kids safe – but in Texas, somebody is going to try. Gov. Rick Perry has already suggested that one potential response to school shootings would be arming more teachers; and on Tuesday – the day the Commissioners Court discussed the idea of banning gun shows at the Expo Center – Attorney General (and likely gubernatorial candidate) Greg Abbott offered this to his Twitter followers: "If Austin or Travis Co. try to ban gun shows they better be ready for a double-barreled lawsuit." Questionable metaphor there. Spokes­people from Abbott's office did not respond to a request for clarification about what grounds the Attorney General's Office might use in a lawsuit.

Also playing a role in all of this is the national bank of gun enthusiasts. Last week, the offices of Riley and Council Member Kathie Tovo each received a phone call from Long Island, N.Y., in which a man calling himself Paul Caruso offered vague threats about potential danger should the Council move to ban gun shows. Tovo thought it worrisome enough to check in with her colleagues about the call.

The only public official not playing his or her presumed role might be Land Com­mis­sioner Jerry Patterson. Patterson, who has already announced a run for lieutenant gov­ernor, called Austin Mayor Lee Leffing­well with one potential solution: Offer gun show attendees a one-card-serves-all opportunity to get a background check at the entrance to the event. If you pass, you can buy all the guns you want (and can legally own). If you fail, no can do.

Leffingwell confirmed that Patterson gave him a ring "like a lot of people have." Though he called the conversation "positive," he added that he referred Patterson to Martinez. As for his own views, the mayor noted that he is on record (along with hundreds of mayors nationwide, via Mayors Against Illegal Guns) for stronger federal restrictions on ammo clips and strengthened background checks. He notes that he's focused on action at the state and federal level, where any restrictions might be more effective. Still, Leffingwell could well entertain a move to take action locally.

Should the city enact such an effort, based on Patterson's proposal, it would mark something of a banner compromise: The proposal would close the widely criticized gun show loophole that allows folks to purchase guns "person-to-person" without a background check at those events. It would also represent a rare instance of a state-level political power-player reaching down to help the city of Austin.

Not that any of it will ward off continued strong opposition from the gun lobby, or the legislators and state-level executives who pay it homage. At least, if the likes of Abbott continue to play their assigned roles.

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