Pistol Politics

Council candidates split on requiring background checks at gun shows

In the wake of the slaughter of 20 schoolchildren and six adults by a crazed gunman at Sandy Hook Elementary School last December, the issue of gun control took center stage in national politics.

Politicians on both sides of the aisle offered proposals. President Barack Obama issued a collection of executive actions aimed to reducing gun violence. Gov. Jan Brewer called for more school resource officers, although the Arizona Legislature ultimately didn't provide funding for the program. The U.S. Senate tried to pass legislation that enhanced the background check system, but a filibuster from Republican lawmakers killed the bill.

Here in Tucson, the City Council enacted a new policy that required background checks for any sales of firearms on city property. The requirement was aimed at closing the so-called "gun show loophole" that allows some gun dealers to sidestep background checks at gun shows.

Federal law requires anyone with a federal license to sell firearms to conduct a background check on buyers. But non-licensed dealers are not required to do a background check—and in fact, they don't have access to the database that would allow them to do background checks.

Some states, such as California, have closed the gun show loophole by requiring non-licensed dealers to temporarily transfer the firearm to a licensed dealer, who then conducts the background check before approving the sale.

Arizona has generally gone the other direction, passing laws that prevent the county and city governments from enacting any laws that are stricter than state law on the issue of firearms.

City Attorney Mike Rankin came up with a loophole in the state law: The city still has authority over how it runs its properties. So he suggested the council enact a policy requiring any gun show promoters who rent the Tucson Convention Center to have background checks on all firearm sales as part of a lease agreement.

The proposal passed unanimously last February, much to the dismay of Lori McMann, the promoter who rented out the Tucson Convention Center two or three times a year for the RoadRunner Gun Show.

McMann questioned whether the city had the authority to require the background checks, but said she didn't have plans to challenge the new policy in court. Instead, she said she'd move her gun show to private property.

This year's crop of Tucson City Council candidates split on the question of whether the council made the right decision on background checks.

Ward 3 Councilmember Karin Uhlich, a Democrat seeking a third term, said she voted for the background checks because "to me, the majority of people in Tucson support that as a very reasonable measure, to have sales go through a background check. It doesn't prevent sales, necessarily, or even cause any infringement on anybody's rights to say we're going to basically require people to behave as gun dealers, and gun dealers run background checks."

Buehler-Garcia said he's a gun owner who has used his handgun to scare off a burglar who was climbing through a window in his house.

"As a responsible gun owner for over 40 years, I don't want someone who shouldn't handle firearms, who has been legally prohibited from handling firearms, to have them," Buehler-Garcia said. "Having said that, as City Council members, we take an oath to defend and uphold the Constitution of the United States and the laws of the state of Arizona. The laws of the state of Arizona specifically state we can't do that."

Buehler-Garcia called the background-check issue a distraction from the work the council should be doing to fix roads and make it easier for businesses to create jobs.

The gun issue, Buehler-Garcia said, "is very complex and needs to be addressed at the national and state issue where it belongs."

Councilmember Richard Fimbres, who is seeking a second term in his south-central Ward 5, said he voted to require background checks to improve public safety.

"We're not saying you can't have a gun show at the TCC," Fimbres said. "We're just saying background checks are a required part of that. ... It's important to know who we are selling weapons to."

Republican Mike Polak, who hopes to unseat Fimbres, said that he would have voted against the policy because unlicensed dealers who sell guns should have the option of deciding whether to do a background check.

"Individuals who wish to do background checks, if they want to transfer a gun, they can go to one of those dealers and do that," Polak said. "We lost a lot of revenue because there were three shows there a year and now those shows are no longer there."