Clash over gun shows on public property nears

A showdown over gun shows is looming in Texas.

As Austin and Travis County officials prepare to vote on whether weapon markets should be hosted in their publicly owned Exposition Center - potentially laying the groundwork for other Texas communities to follow - top state officials are firing back in defense of gun shows.

"If Austin or Travis Co. try to ban gun shows they better be ready for a double-barreled lawsuit," tweeted the state's top attorney, Attorney General Greg Abbott.

Gun shows are big business at publicly owned facilities in Texas and many other states. The Fort Worth Gun Show and the Lone Star Gun Show run almost monthly at the Will Rogers Memorial Center.

But elected officials nationwide are considering whether to restrict shows at public facilities after mass shootings, most recently the Dec. 14 massacre in Newtown, Conn., which left 20 children and six educators dead at Sandy Hook Elementary School.

"These mass shootings in too many areas make you wonder," Travis County Judge Sam Biscoe said of why the issue is under consideration. "Don't we have too many guns?"

Texas Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson, who as a Republican state senator sponsored a concealed-handgun bill in 1995, said he agrees that "any gun violence is too much."

"But these politicians are doing knee-jerk reactions that won't make any difference. This is low-hanging, politically correct fruit for politicians who want to say they did something," Patterson said.

Beyond gun shows on public property, many lawmakers are pushing for other gun control changes, and Vice President Joe Biden is scheduled to present a package of proposals Tuesday to President Barack Obama.

One anticipated proposal would force gun show sellers to meet the same registration requirements as gun stores by closing a so-called gun show loophole.

Anyone buying a gun from a licensed dealer at a gun show such as those in Fort Worth must go through a background check. The loophole is that in Texas and more than two dozen other states, private weapon sales at gun shows are permitted with no background checks.

Gun control supporters hope to prevail in the upcoming votes in the Austin City Council and the Travis County Commissioners Court and to encourage other Texas communities to consider similar action.

That's not likely to happen in Tarrant County, though.

"There is a broader acceptance of guns and the gun culture and gun shows in Tarrant County than Austin," said Cal Jillson, a political science professor at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. "Austin is the more liberal, progressive part of the state. And they are going to be out of the gate quick on gun issues."

Some local officials say they simply aren't ready to draw Fort Worth into the debate.

"There's no groundswell of people saying we shouldn't have them on city property," Fort Worth Councilman Danny Scarth said. "At this point, I don't really see any reason to change.

"It wouldn't make the practice go away or be illegal," he said. "They would just go somewhere else."

Public pressure

In Austin, city and county officials have heard from hundreds of residents about the issue.

If a ban is put in place, it would end gun shows not only at the Travis County Exposition Center, but also at several sites in the city.

Commissioners could vote on the issue as soon as Tuesday, and a vote by city leaders could follow. For such a ban to take effect, both government bodies must approve it because the county has a long-term lease for the Expo Center but the city owns the land it's on.

This "is all that we can do," Travis County Commissioner Sara Eckhardt has told the media. "It is a drop in the bucket, but if everybody does what they can, ... I think we will have made a difference."

Opponents there say they'll work to oust elected officials who support banning gun shows; supporters say banning shows is the right thing to do.

Patterson said he's not even sure whether it's legal for local governments to ban shows from their properties.

"The greatest threat to liberty is the City Council," Patterson said. "It's full of people ... who are do-gooders and don't understand the Constitution. I'm not sure this is going to fly."

After Abbott tweeted that he's ready to sue if Austin officials move forward, Eckhardt tweeted back:

"Travis County wants to do its part to ensure guns are sold only to law abiding, mentally competent folks," she wrote.

Local debate

The most recent major gun show debate in Fort Worth was in 2000, when officials considered more controls on shows at city facilities.

Fort Worth officials talked for months about such proposals as encouraging federal lawmakers to require background checks at shows and restricting the leasing of city facilities for shows so that only licensed dealers could sell firearms.

The measure failed and shows are still held on city property like the Will Rogers complex, generating thousands of dollars a year in city revenue.

"Americans have the right under the Second Amendment to own firearms, and that is not going to change," said state Sen. Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth, who served on the council during the debate. "It's time to set aside any ideological differences and find common ground to keep guns out of the hands of criminals and to make sure our children are safe."

Mayor Betsy Price said she may have received one email on gun shows since the Connecticut shooting.

"Nobody has said a thing, and we've had long, long lines and crowds at gun shows," she said. "Gun shows are legal. It's understandable that this tragedy pushed this issue to the surface, but we need to look at the mental health issues.

"We've had these shows on government property forever," Price said. "It's just not an issue right now in Fort Worth - or at least we are hearing it's not an issue."

Fort Worth has 12 shows scheduled at Will Rogers during the 2013 fiscal year, which ends in September. Half are operated by the Original Fort Worth Gun Show, the rest by Lone Star Gun Show.

Rental revenue to the city is a projected $212,500 for the year, and projected attendance is 116,000.

The Fort Worth Gun Show is next scheduled for Feb. 16-17. The Lone Star Gun Show is slated to run March 16-17. Participants can buy and sell firearms and other merchandise.

At the Lone Star Gun Show on Dec. 22-23, 13,000 people attended. The crowd attending the Fort Worth Gun Show on Dec. 29-30 was 17,645 people, city records say.

More limits

A variety of limits on gun sales, ammunition, shows and more may be on the table.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., is preparing to introduce a bill in Congress to require background checks on people buying ammunition.

"There is no rational reason why a person can walk into a store, fill their shopping cart with hundreds of rounds of ammo, pay up and walk out without so much as giving their name," Blumenthal has said.

At the same time, elected officials nationwide are moving to limit gun sales and shows.

This month, four shows - all within a few dozen miles of Newtown, Conn., where the school shooting occurred - were canceled.

Organizers and venues decided the events weren't appropriate at the time. And at least one show in that area agreed to prevent the AR-15 assault rifle and its large magazine clips - similar to what was used in Newtown - from being displayed or sold.

And the mayor of Barre, Vt., wants to ban military-style assault weapons sold at a February show.

Attention may be focused on gun shows right now, but community discussions should go beyond that, said Jillson, of SMU.

"Public venues should be open to the full range of private entities," Jillson said. "The real issue is what to do with assault weapons, high capacity magazine clips and closing gun show loopholes.

"Banning gun shows is clearly a political statement," he said. "And there will be a lot of discussion about it in the coming weeks."

Anna M. Tinsley, 817-390-7610

Twitter: @annatinsley