Some Texas Democrats seek regulations for gun shows in Fort Worth

The Fort Worth Star-TelegramFebruary 19, 2013 


Ernie Vandergriff fires at a target during a class for a concealed handgun license at The Shooting Gallery in Fort Worth, Texas

RON JENKINS — Fort Worth Star-Telegram/MCT

— There's a new push to add regulations on gun shows held at city facilities.

As elected officials in Congress and the state Legislature consider whether to place additional restrictions on gun purchases, a local group is pressing for change at gun shows held on city property such as the Will Rogers Center.

The Tarrant County Democratic Party's executive committee is asking the city to make three key changes at guns shows held on city property: allow only licensed sellers there, require background checks for all gun sales there and require a seven-day waiting period for all gun sales made there.

"This issue is up and in front of us on the national stage," said Tarrant County Democratic Party Chairman Steve Maxwell, who recently presented a request for change to the Fort Worth City Council. "Something needs to be done to curb the gun violence in this country.

"This is heeding the call of the president, who said we've got to start doing something," he said. "This is the first step in making our voices heard on this issue."

Last month, President Barack Obama promised to do everything he can to make a reality the country's most aggressive gun control proposal in decades. The plan, developed through a task force guided by Vice President Joe Biden in the wake of the mass shooting at a Connecticut elementary school in December, includes requiring background checks on all gun purchases, banning assault weapons and limiting ammunition magazines to 10 rounds.

Some city officials say they aren't sure about making any changes at local gun shows.

"I know some have raised concerns locally, but so far we haven't heard a widespread outcry from citizens on the issue of gun control," Fort Worth Mayor Betsy Price said. "As a country, we should do our best to keep guns in the hands of law-abiding citizens and out of the hands of criminals.

"However, I think most Americans understand that curbing violence is going to take much more than simply adding new gun laws to the books," she said. "We'll continue to watch the national debate, but I don't see any reason for local government to get in the way by adding more local laws at this time."

One political observer noted that Texas is a tough place to pitch gun restrictions.

"It's an emotional issue here," said Jim Riddlesperger, a political science professor at TCU. "In Texas, there are more people passionate about less regulation as opposed to more regulation of firearms.

"It's a lose-lose scenario for people in Texas and in Fort Worth to try to engage in any kind of policy-making that would be seen as negative to gun owners."

Resolution proposed

Maxwell recently presented a resolution seeking the changes at local gun shows to the Fort Worth City Council. The measure had been approved nearly unanimously by the local Democratic Party's executive committee. There was one vote against it.

The goal, according to the resolution, is to put in place rules to "keep felons, domestic abusers and the mentally ill from buying guns at Fort Worth gun shows in Fort Worth facilities."

Allowing only licensed sellers and requiring background checks for all the gun sales at these gun shows -- basically ruling out private sales -- would essentially close the so-called gun show loophole.

"It's incredibly easy to get around background checks and waiting periods by going to a gun show and buying a gun," Maxwell said. "This doesn't affect anybody's right to own a gun. It just puts the same regulations on gun sales at Fort Worth gun shows that there are in gun stores.

"I can't see why anybody would oppose this."

Currently, 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 other states, private weapon sales at gun shows are allowed with no background checks. And those privately selling everything from ammunition to firearms may or may not be licensed sellers. Requiring the seven-day waiting period from gun shows would be one additional safety measure, Maxwell said.

The resolution also asked city leaders to study any action officials could take to protect local residents and families from gun violence.

"As a father of 3-year-old twins, the Sandy Hook massacre really brought home the dangers of guns in the wrong hands," said Jason Smith, a Fort Worth attorney and Democrat who proposed the resolution. "We need take common-sense action to keep Fort Worth families safe from gun violence."

As other Texas cities briefly entertained similar efforts, some concerns were voiced statewide that city officials don't have authority to regulate gun sales at gun shows held on city property.

State Rep. Lon Burnam, D-Fort Worth, recently filed House Bill 1030 to address that issue -- and give officials that power.

His measure gives elected officials the ability to "prohibit the sale of firearms on property owned or controlled by the municipality, other than the sale of firearms at a permanent retail store," the bill states.

"The fact of the matter is there are a lot of problems at those gun shows," Burnam said. "They are very popular but city governments should be able to control what happens there.

"This is something I've been concerned about for a long time," he said. "But the [Fort Worth] City Council has never been known for showing any leadership on any issue. Of course they will wait to act."

Local debate

The most recent formal 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 proposals such as encouraging federal lawmakers to require background checks at shows and restrict 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, generating thousands of dollars a year in city revenue.

Fort Worth has 12 shows scheduled at Will Rogers during the 2013 fiscal year, which ends in September.

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

The Fort Worth Gun Show was last weekend. The Lone Star Gun Show is slated to run March 16-17.

At the Lone Star Gun Show on Dec. 22-23, 13,000 people attended. The Fort Worth Gun Show on Dec. 29-30 brought in 17,645 people, city records show.

"We are waiting to see what comes out of Washington, D.C., and what comes out of the Legislature," Fort Worth Councilman Sal Espino said. "It's prudent for us to wait."

Mayor Pro Tem W.B. "Zim" Zimmerman said he hasn't received emails or calls from constituents about this issue.

"This is a federal issue, or maybe a state issue," he said. "I'm going to let them sort it out."

But even if Congress passes a bill, some say they don't know if it will be enough.

"Any federal legislation which passes is unlikely to satisfy most gun-control advocates," said Mark P. Jones, a political science professor at Rice University in Houston. "In order to get some Republicans and centrist Democrats on board, the federal legislation will likely be limited to areas where there is a reasonably strong consensus such as universal background checks, limits on high capacity magazines and better state-federal coordination in the sharing of mental-health data on those attempting to purchase firearms."

State efforts

Elected leaders in cities ranging from Austin to Dallas have talked about imposing restrictions on gun shows held at their city-owned facilities. But they have backed down.

Efforts stalled in Travis County and Austin after Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott tweeted that "if Austin or Travis Co. try to ban gun shows they better be ready for a double-barreled lawsuit."

And while Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings said earlier this year that city leaders should examine the lack of some background checks at gun shows held on city property, city staffers later said the mayor didn't mean he would propose a change in city ordinance.

Some maintain there is a state law in place that prevents elected city officials from restricting gun sales on publicly owned property.

That's why Burnam said he filed his bill, to give officials statewide definite authority to act.

Jones said he doesn't believe Burnam's bill will go far.

"The bill will find virtually no support among Republicans, nor even among many of Rep. Burnam's Democratic colleagues," he said.

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