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Travis County nixes gun show contract renewal

If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. That would seem to be the case with Travis County as after this month, the county will no longer host a gun show in its Exposition Center based on county commissioners not renewing the lease for what the Austin American-Statesman calls a “controversial event.”

One year ago, weeks after the Newtown, Conn., school shooting, the commissioners toyed with banning gun shows on county property:

With Tuesday’s unanimous vote, Travis County commissioners ended their current consideration of banning gun shows on county property. This development signals the county’s plan to honor an existing contract with Saxet Trade Shows for nine upcoming shows at the Travis County Exposition Center. The vote also keeps intact a county income stream that represents about 10 percent of the Expo Center’s total $1.15 million annual revenue.

After a closed meeting with county attorneys, commissioners reportedly said they question having the legal authority to ban the shows. “I take very seriously the idea of abiding by the law. State law prevents this court from doing much of anything on this issue,” Commissioner Sarah Eckhardt said. The Austin American-Statesman additionally reported Eckhardt and other commissioners’ favor requiring all gun buyers to pass a background check, a measure not currently in place.

Despite dropping the gun show ban, commissioners did vote to implement a new level of building use approval in which their permission will be required for proposed Expo Center events deemed as posing “unusually high safety risks.” Expo Center event contracts were previously approved by county staffers.

Citing plans to develop requirements for such events beyond gun shows, Judge Sam Biscoe said, “It was clear from legal advice we received that our net needs to be a lot broader, and we need to pick up all events that are more unsafe than others.” Biscoe also voiced his support for gun shows requiring background checks for all purchases.

Saxet Gun Shows has held regular shows at Travis County’s Expo Center since 2010 and was negotiating a contract for another eight shows scheduled from March to January 2015. Negotiations broke down when county officials wanted the company to require background checks for all firearm sales, a point the company reportedly refused to concede.

The Statesman reports this reaction:

“If you use a public facility to sell guns, we really oughta have background checks done. Or don’t use the facility,” County Judge Sam Biscoe, the chairman of the commissioners, told reporters after the meeting.

Alice Tripp, lobbyist for the Texas State Rifle Association, called the move “political.”

Todd Beiter, who owns Saxet Gun Shows, said in a phone interview that neither state nor federal law requires background checks by private sellers, and “it is not really my job to infringe on anyone’s rights.”

The background checks affecting a small percentage of gun show patrons further suggests the political nature of this move. During last year’s debate, gun rights advocates noted how the price of display tables often prompt gun shows being populated by Federal Firearms License (FFL) holders who either conduct their business exclusively at gun shows or else use the shows to promote their traditional shops. In either case, their sales require use of the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) to determine firearm purchase eligibility. In addition to the loss of both government and private revenue, the bans under discussion would impede legal dealers’ commercial activities and deny legal consumers efficient buying opportunities.

Based on this point of view, lawsuits could be ahead. Last January, Attorney General Greg Abbott posted on his Twitter page: “If Austin or Travis Co. try to ban gun shows they better be ready for a double-barreled lawsuit.”

With the 2014 primary looming, hotly contested races underway between both gubernatorial and attorney general candidates and gun rights a major issue, this development won’t go unnoticed or unaddressed.