Proposed zoning rules for gun merchants – aimed at curbing gun violence in neighborhoods and around schools – cleared their first hurdle Wednesday when a City Council committee voted 3-2 to advance them to the Zoning Commission and the full Council for consideration.
Councilmen Clayton Perry (D10) and Greg Brockhouse (D6) opposed the measure, saying the new rules, which would relegate new gun shops to higher-intensity development zones, put the City at risk for litigation and would not have significant impact on gun violence.
Local gun advocates who attended the meeting of the five-member Public Safety Committee said they, too, were skeptical about the effectiveness of the measure and how implementing it would play out legally.
“We’re watching this closely,” said Tara Mica, a regional lobbyist for the National Rifle Association who spoke at the meeting, as there could be “legal predicaments” for gun shop owners and the City.
The State largely controls gun laws, and there are very few ways in which the City can regulate people selling or carrying guns, Deputy City Attorney Edward Guzman told Council members. The committee in June asked City staff to look into what the City could do in terms of gun control after a May 18 high school shooting in Santa Fe, Texas, claimed the lives of eight students and two teachers.
But land use regulations and zoning, Guzman said, are “carved out” of the preemption in state law, giving cities authority to regulate locations of certain businesses.
Mica disagreed, pointing to a section of State law that states cities can regulate zoning and other rules “as long as the code, ordinance, or regulations are not used to circumvent the intent” of the State’s prohibition on local rules related to firearms.
“We’ve looked at the state law, and we’ve looked at existing case law to determine whether or not we’re on solid ground with this,” Guzman said. “We believe we are. Obviously that doesn’t mean that someone can’t sue us – they can sue us for pretty much anything they want.”
Another proposed rule, on which the City Attorney’s office recommended more study, would prohibit gun shops within 1,000 feet of school, parks, and places of worship. Guzman said Galveston currently has a 200-foot-radius rule that has yet to prompt legal action, according to his office’s research so far. Federal law already prohibits possession of a gun within 1,000 feet of schools.
Brockhouse asked if there was any analysis that could shed light on whether gun violence in Galveston has decreased since the gun-free zone was instated.
Guzman said his office had not performed such an analysis.
Brockhouse asked San Antonio Police Chief William McManus for his thoughts.
From January to August of this year, San Antonio has seen gun-related crimes decrease citywide by 26 percent compared to the same time period in 2017, McManus said, crediting the department’s Violent Crimes Task Force and the Texas Anti-Gang Program, which specifically target violent criminals.
“It’s worked because we’ve been smart about who we’ve been arresting,” he said, adding he could not “predict what changing location of sales would do.”
“It’s irrelevant,” Brockhouse said.
But the proposed rules, which would update the City’s development code to include and define “firearm,” “firearm sales,” and “gunsmiths,” would also give residents a say in where certain property uses are allowed, Councilwoman Ana Sandoval (D7) said, the same way the City is able to regulate the location of liquor stores.
Councilman Cruz Shaw (D2), who chairs the committee and previously served on the Zoning Commission, said he has heard countless cases about alcohol sales, but that City code does not allow for the same discussions about fire arms.
“What this zoning does … [it] gives our community members the same ability to be involved” in what goes into their neighborhoods, Shaw said.
Councilman John Courage (D9) agreed, adding that nothing in these proposed changes “takes away the rights of anyone in San Antonio to buy a gun or posses a gun in any way.”
If approved, about 60, or half of, existing gun shops in San Antonio would be out of compliance with the new rules – but those properties would be grandfathered in, Development Services Director Michael Shannon said. The other half is already in “C-3” zones, which are typically further away from residential areas than lower-intensity commercial zones.
The committee’s vote also sent two related recommendations to the Intergovernmental Relations Committee for review: the first proposes working with Bexar County to encourage judges to impose firearm restrictions as part of bail conditions; the second would endorse five recommendations from Gov. Greg Abbott’s School and Firearm Safety Action Plan related to background checks in small cities, “red-flag” laws, enforcement of existing reporting requirements, gun storage laws, and mandatory reporting of lost or stolen guns.
Richard Briscoe of pro-gun group Open Carry Texas told committee members that none of these recommendations were necessary – only enforcement of existing rules.
It’s criminals who are breaking the rules, he said, not law-abiding business owners.