The Tucson City Council took a stab at closing the so-called "gun-show loophole" last week when it voted unanimously to approve a resolution that requires background checks on all firearm purchases at gun shows at the Tucson Convention Center.
"We're doing exactly what Tucson residents wanted us to do, which is to manage their property in a way that reinforces gun safety," said Councilwoman Karin Uhlich. "Just because we can't do everything doesn't mean we shouldn't do what's within our own power."
The council's push for background checks is another skirmish in an ongoing national debate over the "universal background checks" that President Barack Obama and other gun-control advocates want to see.
Under federal law, only federally licensed firearm dealers are required to conduct background checks when guns are purchased. People without licenses who want to sell their guns have no access to the background-check database. (For more on how the background check system, see "Background Noise," Jan. 31)
There's an increasing push to expand the use of background checks at the national level. Arizona Sen. John McCain said on Meet the Press on Feb. 17 that a bipartisan group of senators was working on a plan that "most of us will be able to support" and a spokeswoman for U.S. Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona has told the Weekly that Flake is open to wider background checks on gun sales.
Here in Tucson, City Attorney Mike Rankin has crafted a requirement that, as a part of any lease for the TCC or other city property, background checks be conducted on any gun sales. By making it part of the lease to rent the city's property, the council can get around a state law that prohibits cities, towns and other jurisdictions from passing ordinances that create restrictions on the possession or sale of firearms that are more restrictive than state statute.
Earlier this month, supporters of background checks packed a council meeting to show their approval of the new requirement.
Pam Simon, a former aide to U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords who was among those shot on Jan. 8, 2011, called the requirement "an absolutely wonderful first step. Overwhelmingly, Americans believe the gun-show loophole should be closed."
But whether the new restrictions will have much impact on local gun shows remains to be seen. Roadrunner Gun Show manager Lori McMann told the Weekly she didn't expect to take legal action against the city to force it to drop the requirement for background checks.
"We can't afford legal action at this time and I don't believe the NRA or Gun Owners of America plans on picking up any tab for that at this point," McMann said after the council gave preliminary approval to the new resolution on Feb. 5.
Instead, McMann said she'd move the two or three gun shows she does each year at the TCC to the privately owned Tucson Expo Center. She already does a few shows there each year.
McMann estimates she pays the city around $20,000 per show. The city will also lose out on parking revenues and other related benefits from having the show at the TCC, such as the use of special-duty Tucson police officers for security at the show, according to McMann.
City Councilman Steve Kozachik pegged the loss to the city at closer to $14,000 per show, but said the amount of money didn't make a difference to him.
"This is not a data-driven decision to me," said Kozachik, who recently jumped from the Republican Party to the Democratic Party. "It's about doing what's right. ... The city of Tucson, because of our personal experience, is taking the lead in a state that is über-conservative."
Kozachik acknowledged that gun shows will go on in Tucson and Pima County, but he said he hoped that other jurisdictions would follow the city's lead.
"I don't mind being a leader on this," Kozachik said. "I hope the county follows suit."
Pima County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry told the Weekly last month that he doesn't anticipate that the Board of Supervisors will get involved in overruling the judgment of the Southwestern Fair Commission, which manages the Pima County Fairgrounds, where private vendors produce a few gun shows each year.
The new city policy highlights the challenges in reducing the sale of firearms without a background check, especially in Arizona, where Republican state lawmakers who control the Legislature have pushed to limit the ability of local jurisdictions to require background checks on unlicensed gun sales.
It's not impossible for states to require background checks on gun sales: McMann said that when she does gun shows in California, she's required to use a system that allows for background checks on all sales at gun shows.
"It runs very smoothly," said McMann, who said the state regulates gun shows and requires licenses for businesses that produce them. When unlicensed firearm dealers sell guns, buyers have to go through a 10-day waiting period and a background check.
"They spent millions of dollars setting that up and a whole lot of time," McMann said.