Travis County weighs ending lease of Expo Center to gun shows

On Jan. 15, Travis County Commissioners Court is scheduled to decide whether to continue leasing the Travis County Exposition Center for gun shows.

The court discussed the issue and heard public comment during its Jan. 8 meeting.

Since 2010, the Expo Center has hosted 17 Saxet Gun Show events, with the most recent being Dec. 15–16, according to county documents.

"The Saxet Gun Show provides an opportunity for citizens to buy, sell or trade guns," wrote Roger El Khoury, county Facilities Management Department director, in a Jan. 3 letter to the Commissioners Court. "Visitors have the opportunity to walk around and look at the displayed guns, and, if they choose, to purchase a gun from one of the vendors. Visitors to the gun show may also trade or sell their personal guns in the arena during the events."

Gun shows may feature several types of guns, including hunting guns, shotguns, pistols, rifles, collectibles, and semi-automatic and assault-style weapons, according to the county.

Promoters have paid a deposit for nine more shows through January 2014.

Austin police officers check that each gun in the arena has been cleared of ammunition and is disabled with a zip tie, he wrote.

The county would lose an estimated $128,000 in revenue by canceling the nine scheduled gun shows at the Expo Center, El Khoury wrote.

Answering Commissioner Sarah Eckhardt's question, El Khoury said that the county did not keep any data on the number of guns sold at gun shows, the types of guns sold or information on vendors, buyers and inventory.

He noted that police monitor the parking lot to make sure gun sales only take place inside the center.

The majority of speakers opposed ending the gun shows at the Expo Center.

Jim Phipps said that ending the gun shows means gun show visitors would not buy hotel rooms and restaurant meals, among other tourism expenses.

Commissioner Ron Davis noted that the county does not receive hotel occupancy taxes or sales taxes.

Phipps said he had never seen anyone selling guns in the parking lot of a gun show.

"As a veteran and as an Army officer, I did swear to defend the Constitution," he said. "That is a mandate. I don't get a vote. I didn't get a chance when I did that to check the box of the amendments that I don't like or the amendments that I do like."

Donald Dahl said a similar ban in Alameda County, Calif., was struck down in court.

"The problem was that at the Alameda County Fair, a person who was a convicted felon and a known gang member decided to shoot through the midway one night," he said. "Because of this, they thought that they had to ban gun shows to make people feel safe. It had nothing to do with feeling safe."

He went on to say that if the commissioners felt that all gun buyers should have a background check, they should lobby for it at the state capitol.

Eckhardt asked several of the speakers who opposed ending the gun shows whether they would support background checks for firearms sold on county property.

She asked Dahl whether he would agree that it seems absurd that the state requires barbers to get a background check—a "background check to hold scissors"—but does not require one to purchase a semi-automatic gun.

"One difference—getting a haircut is not a constitutional right. Firearms are a constitutional right," he replied.

One resident said that ending the leases would affect vendors' incomes. Another suggested that gun shows were safe places to buy guns because of the police presence and the judgment of the vendors themselves.

Ed Scruggs supported ending the leases. He said he wanted to express his outrage at the Dec. 14 school shooting in Newtown, Conn.

"That was a massacre, not a shooting. When I see the faces of the victims, I see the face of my 5-year-old daughter and 9-year-old son. I wonder what if it happens here again, like it did in the University of Texas tower, but on a much larger scale?" he asked.

He said that state law does not allow communities to pick and choose what types of guns are sold at a gun show. He argued against hosting gun shows in public venues.

"They could still be held in private facilities like they have for years, years before they ever came to the Exposition Center," he said.