Texas Guns Get Easier To Carry, Harder to Buy

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

AT Doc Holliday's Pawn Shop in north Austin, $49.95 plus tax will buy a Raven, a five-shot semiautomatic handgun that could hide in a shirt pocket with room left over for a roll of Lifesavers.

Manager Dan Neel figures his chain will always stock such ''Saturday night specials,'' given the store's southwestern image.

Another Texas pawn chain, though, quit the handgun trade last week. Major retailers like Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and Kmart Corporation had previously pulled out of the gun business. But First Cash Inc., based in Arlington, Texas, is the first pawn chain in the nation to do so.

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The two stores symbolize conflicting views of guns in a state where passions about weapons run deep.

The contrast may now become even sharper in the wake of back-to-back tragedies. Last week Selena Quintanilla Perez, a young rising star in the Tejano music scene, was gunned down in Corpus Christi. This week, in the same city, a man killed five people and then himself.

Both incidents involved disgruntled former employees armed with handguns, which has Texans asking again whether the streets would be safer with more guns or fewer.

Scott Williamson, for one, believes more and more pawn shops in Texas will follow his lead and stop selling weapons.

''They know what we know -- the economics aren't good, and some of the guns go for a bad purpose,'' says the vice president of First Cash Inc., which has stores in Oklahoma, Maryland, and Washington, D.C.

The markup on handguns is low because the merchandise is inferior and gun buyers in this state know the market, Mr. Williamson explains. His company also worried about potential liability and bad publicity.

Ironically, First Cash decided to stop selling guns even as a bill allowing Texans to carry concealed weapons is sailing through the state legislature. It is too soon to know whether the law will increase handgun sales.

But already, ''hordes'' of callers are trying to pre-register for the training class that the bill requires, says Diane Lawson, a firearms instructor here. ''A lot of people out there have been waiting for this opportunity.''

When the right-to-carry bill passes, what then? ''More death in the streets. More suicides,'' predicts Mr. Neel of Doc Holliday's. ''This is still Texas,'' he adds.

But Chip Walker, spokesman for the National Rifle Association, says Texans are not trigger-happy gunslingers from the Wild West -- no more so than are residents of the 38 states that already grant the right to carry concealed weapons.

Mr. Walker says Texas will not witness ''horror stories in which people involved in minor traffic accidents start shooting at each other. Those things just don't happen.''

Florida has issued more than 266,000 concealed-weapons permits since its right-to-carry bill passed in 1987. Only 19 were later revoked for use of a firearm during a crime, he adds.

Mrs. Lawson, a Georgia native who has ''never not known what a gun was,'' began offering one of Austin's two firearms courses after witnessing people's dangerous carelessness with guns.

Occasionally, Neel says, he refuses to sell handguns to bizarre-acting folks, like one man who asked, ''Will you help me load it?''

But if and when the new weapons-concealment law passes, any gun Neel does sell could wind up hidden in some Texan's boot or denim jacket.

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