Point Austin: Doing What We Can
Public Safety Commission takes a stand against gun violence
As I've noted here before, thus far the most substantive outcome of the current gun control debate has been a tremendous increase in gun sales. ("Shoot First ... Think Later," Jan. 25.) In the world of conspiracy theorists, nefarious gun-control forces are engaged in a plot to "seize Americans' guns." The actual evidence seems to suggest a quite successful plan by gun manufacturers to boost their profits.
I hadn't expected to return to this subject so soon, since the only local initiative, by the Travis County Commissioners Court, was apparently short-lived. But last week, the city's public safety commissioners took it upon themselves to get the ball rolling again, with a memorandum to City Council that recommends concrete steps to regulate local gun sales and illegal possession of firearms.
The memo makes five recommendations:
• Ban the leasing of city facilities for gun shows, or require that all show sales be subject to purchaser background checks;
• Restrict gun possession (except with a license) at certain public events;
• Collect information about the sources of guns used in crimes;
• Disinvest from manufacturers of assault-type weapons;
• Pursue the feasibility of gun "buyback" programs.
The resolution's sponsor, attorney and former prosecutor Kent Anschutz, describes it as frankly "working around the margins" allowed by state law. He noted that state law forbids the possession of "brass knuckles, machine guns, switchblades, even tire-deflation devices," while allowing possession of semiautomatic assault weapons and high-capacity magazines. The memo urges the Council to "utilize all powers [with state limits] granted to a municipality" to restrict the carrying of firearms.
Anschutz told me that, like many others, he had been motivated by the Newtown shootings and his frustration "with the inability or unwillingness of state or federal politicians to do anything." If it were possible, he said, "military-style assault weapons and high-capacity magazines" should be banned altogether. He considers these proposals "better than nothing – but [they still don't] get to the assault weapon issue at all." The strongest recommendation is to close the "gun-show loophole" – either all vendors must conduct background checks (already required of federally licensed dealers), or else public facilities (e.g., the Expo Center) should not be leased to gun shows.
Anschutz had sharp words for Attorney General Greg Abbott's lawsuit threat against Travis County commissioners for even considering action on gun shows. "Greg Abbott is a disgrace to the office of the attorney general, the purported chief law enforcement officer of the state of Texas," he said. "Instead of looking for ways to reduce gun violence, he's threatening local communities that are seeking ways to do so." Anschutz hopes the county will revisit the issue when the current lease contract (to Saxet Gun Shows) runs out. "Let's say al Qaeda or the Pornography Association of the U.S., or the Nazi Party wants to rent our facilities – is Greg Abbott going to say we have to rent to them?"
Another recommendation is that the city disinvest in any companies that manufacture assault-type weapons (except for use by law enforcement). Anschutz's co-sponsor, Ramey Ko, acknowledged that the locally available tools are limited, but said they could help lead to something bigger. The PSC action, he said, adds "our weight to the collective weight of the public. We have limited power and limited jurisdiction, but we can at least speak to this as part of our responsibility. ... Federal and state law limit us, but this is how we can act. You're not going to see federal action until you see a lot of local actions."
At the PSC meeting, Ko proposed the amendment that would gather information on the sources of weapons used in gun crimes; one of the results of gun-lobbying at the federal level is that even research into gun violence has been restricted. "The biggest problem," said Ko, "is that there just isn't any data to back up the arguments on either side," though small studies suggest a sizable percentage of guns used in crimes were purchased without background checks.
Neither man is under any illusion that these small local efforts can have substantial effect unless they spread and receive reinforcement at the state (quite unlikely) and federal level (a slightly better chance, with the recent Obama push). "What's so puzzling to me," said Anschutz, "is why the law-abiding gun-owner thinks that to keep guns out of the hands of criminals and the mentally ill somehow threatens them." He dismissed the absolutist interpretation of the Second Amendment as both misguided and historically inaccurate. "If you believe in the strict interpretation of the Second Amendment," he said, "then I support your right all day to own a single-shot flintlock rifle and pistol. ... You can't have it both ways: a literal interpretation of the amendment but the right to own guns that didn't even exist at the time."
The next steps are up to the elected officials; presumably the recommendations could land on a Council agenda soon, as – in the spirit of President Obama's State of the Union – they "deserve a vote." "Our actions will not prevent every senseless act of violence in this country," acknowledged the president. "But we were never sent here to be perfect. We were sent here to make what difference we can."
The public safety commissioners should be applauded for their willingness to make a difference on gun violence. They've set a good example for the rest of us.