It's hard to overstate the importance of guns in Texas. The state allows citizens to carry concealed weapons just about anywhere, including churches. For some Texans, gun ownership is not just a right - it's a duty, like voting and brushing your teeth.
So when a couple of city council members in Fort Worth suggested banning gun shows at city facilities, it was bound to create a clash of Lone Star proportions. At a council meeting last week, gun dealers, hobbyists, and collectors - including at least one state district judge - berated the council members, equating the gun-show ban with the loss of freedom itself. The issue is expected to be taken to the full city council Aug. 8.
But council member Wendy Davis, who proposed the ban, says banning gun shows is the first step to a safer Fort Worth.
"It's a public safety issue," says Ms. Davis, a lawyer and mother of two, who notes that the two teenage killers at Columbine High School purchased their weapons, through an adult, at a gun show. "As a city, I don't see how we can profit from gun shows, when we know that guns can be sold to felons, to juveniles, and to people who have restraining orders against them."
At surface, this debate centers on the old conundrum of gun control, and whether government has a compelling reason to restrict a citizen's constitutional right to bear or purchase arms.
But complicating the debate is a state law that forbids cities and towns from enacting gun-control laws that are stricter than its own. This puts gun-control advocates in the position of turning to faraway state and federal officials, instead of their own local government, for authority.
"It's an interesting clash of two conservative ideas," says Emile LeBrun, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research in Baltimore. "One is gun rights. The other is the freedom from federal scrutiny and federal control."
Banning or restricting gun shows can be an expensive legal proposition. Los Angeles and San Antonio, for instance, have banned gun shows and never faced a legal challenge, but officials for Los Angeles County are facing a multimillion-dollar lawsuit for their gun-show ban. And Houston, which required gun dealers to sign a roster and put trigger locks on all guns displayed and purchased, lost a $329,000 lawsuit to a gun-show promoter who is also one of Fort Worth's biggest customers.
At issue for the city of Fort Worth, and a handful of other cities struggling with gun shows, is a provision of a 1996 federal law called the Brady Handgun Violence Protection Act. By requiring gun dealers to perform background checks on people who buy weapons, this law has prevented more than 500,000 prohibited persons from buying guns.
But the same law doesn't require checks for purchases between private dealers and collectors, such as those who sell weapons at gun shows. Critics say this could allow juveniles or criminals to purchase weapons they can't buy legally.
There are no statistics to prove gun shows have any significant impact on crime, but two recent surveys by the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms suggest that gun shows "provide a forum for illegal firearms sales and trafficking." By tracing crime guns to their original point of purchase, the ATF found that shows were the third-largest source of crime weapons, at 14 percent, from 1996 to 1998. (Straw purchasers and unlicensed dealers were the first- and second-largest sources.)
Since nobody traces the guns sold at Fort Worth's two main gun shows, it's hard to know how many of the weapons sold have wound up in criminal hands. (Florida State University criminologist Gary Kleck says there is "no significant evidence" that gun shows have any impact on crime.)
But experts like Dr. LeBrun say that the ATF figures show the potential danger that guns shows represent.
"What these numbers suggest is that even if Fort Worth is not representative of the rest of the nation, these gun shows are a significant source of guns that wind up in criminal hands," says LeBrun.
What is certain is that gun shows are fast becoming the venue of choice for gun enthusiasts not just in Texas, but around the country. In 1998, there were more than 4,400 gun shows nationwide, 472 of them in Texas alone.
Aside from the fact that the items for sale are deadly weapons, the atmosphere is not unlike that of a crafts fair. Just substitute tea cozies with hand-tooled leather holsters or infrared binoculars.
In 2000, there will be some 14 gun shows - generating $98,000 in city income - at Fort Worth's two city-run facilities, the Fort Worth Convention Center and the massive Will Rogers complex. Supporters say these shows provide one of the few places where enthusiasts can get together and see the latest firepower up close.
"They still do provide a good opportunity for the gun community to come together," says Griffin Murphy, a Fort Worth dentist who opposes the city's proposed ban on gun shows. But since these shows tend to be dominated by licensed dealers, instead of collectors, much of the flea-market fun has gone out of gun shows, he adds. "There just aren't any cheap old guns like there were in the good old days."
Bob Norman, promoter of The Original Fort Worth Gun Show, says he has never heard of a single crime weapon being traced to his gun show in the past 30 years. He invites ATF and police officers to send undercover agents, and he says if Fort Worth were to ban gun shows on city property, they would just go elsewhere. "If these were to be closed, the promoters would find venues much less regulatory,
I can tell you that," he says.
A 'Bubba' kind of town
City council members Chuck Silcox and Jim Lane say they would support a ban on gun shows if there were any evidence that shows are a chief source of illegal weapons in the city. Mr. Lane, a self-described "yellow-dog Democrat," says the proposal is "meant to send a message. But I don't know if democracy is in the business of sending messages."
Mr. Silcox agrees. "Look at the back of pickup trucks around here, they all have gun racks. We're a Bubba area," he says, noting that Bubba is a positive term in a city that calls itself "Cowtown." Speaking more broadly about gun control, he adds, "More people get killed by improperly prescribed medicine than by guns. Are you going to ban medicine?"
Over at City Hall, Becky Haskin, one of four council members who support the gun-show ban, says she will continue to drum the issue in public until she can find a fifth vote on the council to pass the ban.
"The only thing we can do is wait until we can get a voice of reason to join us."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society