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County, city officials meet roadblocks in quest for gun regulations

Wednesday, January 16, 2013 by Michael Kanin

The nationwide momentum for gun control in the wake of the school shooting in Connecticut met with the reality of firearms regulations in the State of Texas on Tuesday.


Neither Travis County Commissioners nor the members of an Austin City Council subcommittee were able to take or recommend firm action about potential gun regulation. For commissioners, a potential halt to a regular gun show held at the Travis County Expo Center fell victim to legal concerns. And though Council members argued for a comprehensive approach to gun violence through a Public Health lens, and insisted that the city has some power to address the situation, it remained unclear if further legislation at the local level would be productive.


“From my perspective, one of the reasons that I wanted this discussion to take place is what I’ve stated all along, and that is to see what if anything we can do as a local body,” said Council Member Mike Martinez. “What we’re finding out is that there are some things that we can do.”


Commissioners first took up the idea of a gun show ban after resident Ed Scruggs suggested it in December after the Newtown shooting (See In Fact Daily, Whispers, Jan. 9, 2013). Though the idea gained traction, legal concerns – specifically those about the regulatory ability of the county with regard to the issue – caught up.


They debated the idea last week, but took no action. As County Judge Sam Biscoe worried openly about the obstacles, two commissioners said they would vote against a gun show ban.


Tuesday, after a discussion about legal issues related to the proposal, the commissioners returned with a watered-down proposition, and voted unanimously to honor the existing contracts for gun shows at the Expo Center. Commissioners also instructed staff to talk to the vendors and bring “high risk” licenses to the Commissioners Court.


Commissioner Sarah Eckhardt said that she was supportive of the measure “in that I think that it is all that the law allows us.” Commissioner Margaret Gomez agreed, adding that she didn’t want to spend taxpayer dollars on costly litigation that would ultimately not get anywhere.


Gomez’ statement appears to be a reference to a threat posted last week on Attorney General Greg Abbott’s Twitter feed that threatened Austin and Travis County with a “double-barreled lawsuit.” It remains unclear what statute Abbott would use to sue the jurisdictions.  


In a press conference following the vote, Biscoe reiterated the sentiments of Gomez and Eckhardt. He added that money the county earns from gun shows might be appropriately spent aiding private individuals in performing background checks on would-be buyers.


“It seems to me that the money that comes to us, the roughly $128,000, probably could be put to good use if we gave private individuals the capacity to do the background checks,” he said.


Council members’ discussion was more of the fact-finding variety. It took place in chambers before the body’s Public Health and Human Services Committee, chaired by Martinez. As part of his introduction, Martinez called for “creating a higher level of awareness.” He also pointed to existing programs such as the Austin Police Department’s gun buy-back program.


At one point during Citizens’ Communication, Martinez noted – in response to an accusation – that he had never said that a ban on gun shows was on the table. Indeed, Council members explored a variety of issues. These included presentations from Assistant Austin Police Chief Sean Mannix and top mayoral aide Andy Mormon.


Mannix offered a broad-strokes view of APD involvement in illegal gun enforcement. Mormon offered a presentation that discussed Austin Mayor Lee Leffingwell’s participation in New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s Mayors Against Illegal Guns project.


Leffingwell is one of only four Texas mayors involved in the Bloomberg effort. No other major Texas cities are represented.


Council Member Laura Morrison asked about APD enforcement of a state law that makes it illegal to have weapons accessible to children. Mannix noted that, though his department does enforce that law, it’s usually too late by the time they get that opportunity. “Generally, a statute like that, a police department’s role takes place after something bad has already happened,” he said.


After an executive session discussion of legal issues (and presumably limitations), Council members did not pick up the issue again except to hear from citizens.

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