It was a strange anticlimax.
After a year of public controversy but no resolution, the Travis County lease to the Saxet Gun Show for regular use of the Exposition Center was "left pending" early this month – not renewed but not quite canceled, in a Commissioners Court nonaction that might – or might not – mean the end of gun shows at the county facility. There were two motions before the Court: Judge Sam Biscoe moved to suspend lease contract negotiations, and Commissioner Gerald Daugherty moved to accept the previous contract without changes – and in turn both motions died for lack of a second.
In theory, that means the contract could be renewed at any time – should negotiations bear fruit on the county's primary request: that Saxet agree to background checks on all sales at the shows, beyond the estimated 90% that are already handled by federally licensed gun dealers. According to Judge Biscoe in introducing his motion, Saxet declined even to discuss the issue, and statements at the Court from a Saxet representative and a state National Rifle Association spokeswoman confirmed the impasse, which gun advocates contend infringes on gun owners' constitutional rights (though other states have in fact managed to close the "gun show loophole"). The presence of the NRA rep reflected that hardcore gun advocates consider even this mild reform, broadly supported nationwide (including by NRA members) is just too much to endure.
The spokespersons mentioned both potential liability as well as cost, although both could be addressed by contract terms, and the county specifically offered financial concessions to defray any additional costs associated with the background checks – already performed free and quickly via a federal database – that would make it somewhat more difficult for felons or the mentally ill to acquire guns. But the Saxet owners declined even to consider a pilot program, and Biscoe said mildly after the session, "If you use a public facility to sell guns, we really ought to have background checks done. Or don't use the facility."
So that's where things stand. It would seem to be a minor enough story – a public agency and a lessee couldn't agree on the terms of a new lease. But the Travis County story was picked up nationally, and perhaps seen as a small turning point in a struggle over gun regulation that has mostly seen restrictions lessened since the December 2012 Newtown, Conn., school massacre that catalyzed the latest wave of national outrage over lax gun laws.
At the time, there was some pressure on Commissioners Court to "ban" gun shows on county property – but there was an existing lease in place, Saxet hadn't broken any laws, and political posturing over the issue began immediately. Notably, Attorney General and gubernatorial candidate Greg Abbott tweeted (the newest quick-trigger response to public controversies), "If Austin or Travis Co. try to ban gun shows they better be ready for a double-barreled lawsuit." No doubt the AG garnered plenty of macho GOP backslapping over his manly threat, even though his party never tires of trumpeting "local control" – unless the issue is public education, public safety, or women's reproductive rights.
Biscoe also mentioned that the county is anticipating potential lawsuits over the matter, although it's difficult to conceive of a legal argument requiring the county to abide by a contract that doesn't exist. Presumably if "free market" means anything, it means folks can walk away from deals they haven't agreed to – but maybe Abbott knows some legal version of Double Secret Probation he can impose on Commissioners Court, and force them to sign a Saxet lease.
Where does that leave Travis County? More than likely, Saxet Gun Shows (that's "Texas" spelled backward, in case you're slow on the uptake, as I was) will find some other venue for its future shows, either a private hall or some public venue in another county not so particular about felons acquiring guns. It's not an entirely symbolic change – not officially cooperating in reckless gun transactions is a small official step toward public sanity – but it will indeed have little immediate effect on the local availability of guns, even for those who shouldn't be allowed to possess them.
As I've written before, the whole country is awash in guns, legal and illegal, and no single law (or unsigned contract) will make much of a dent in the ready supply of armaments, or prevent the next schoolhouse slaughter. As the Statesman's Eric Dexheimer reported last summer ("Analysis: Local gun suicides and mental health linked," June 1, 2013), "For every gun-related homicide in Travis County over the past three years, three people committed suicide using a firearm," the indirect consequence of "a system in which even those with severe, debilitating or longstanding psychiatric illnesses, including histories of suicide attempts and hospitalizations, often can still buy or possess guns without hindrance."
Requiring background checks for all gun sales will not end that carnage; but it's one small step toward a saner U.S. gun culture, in which more people will be persuaded that we need to take rational steps to keep guns out of the hands of those who are known threats to themselves or others. By its nonrenewal of the Saxet lease, Commissioners Court appears to have found a partly symbolic but still real way of moving the state of Texas to be slightly less backward about gun control.
Call it one small step for humankind.
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