San Marcos Mercury | Local News from San Marcos and Hays County, Texas

March 26th, 2008
County shoots down gun ban

By BILL PETERSON
Editor at Large

SAN MARCOS – A 3-2 vote is always a close vote, but the 3-2 vote Tuesday morning at the Hays County Commissioners Court was really close. From listening to commissioners before the vote, two of the majority could have easily gone the other way.

But they went the way they went, and, by that razor-thin margin, the commissioners declined to pass legislation prohibiting firearms discharge on lots of two acres or less. Thus ended an 11-month bid by Precinct 2 Commissioner Jeff Barton (D-Kyle) to impose minimal restrictions on gun use in Hays County.

Precinct 1 Commissioner Debbie Ingalsbe (D-San Marcos) joined Barton in supporting the measure. However, County Judge Liz Sumter (D-Wimberley) and Precinct 3 Commissioner Will Conley (R-San Marcos) agonized over the legislation before voting against it, while Precinct 4 Commissioner Karen Ford (D-Dripping Springs) expressed the most direct opposition.

Said Ford, “No one can argue (the proposed legislation) is unreasonable. But is is necessary?”

Barton proposed that the county explore discharge regulations last April, after the Hays County Sheriff’s Office (HSCO) charged 37-year-old Jose Barrera Espitia in the shooting death of seven-year-old Daniel Galacia. Barrera was allegedly taking target practice in his yard last April 10 when one of his bullets strayed about 200 yards southward on High Street and struck Galacia, who was bouncing on a trampoline in is yard. Galacia died that evening.

Several news accounts at the time said neighbors in the east Kyle neighborhood frequently fretted about gun shots in the area, but local police said they didn’t have the means to stop the shooting because it was not illegal.

“That’s what originally prompted me to bring this issue forward,” Barton said. “I respect those who disagree and I understand those people in the community who are opposed.”

The possibility of gun regulation in Hays County has long been a political hot potato. It’s commonly believed the court’s Democratic majority in the 1990s brought about its own demise by proposing gun regulation. In 2006, a Republican majority on the court refused to take up the issue after a citizen spoke of his concerns about gunfire in his area.

Appealing to state statutes that allow counties to prohibit shooting on lots of ten acres or less, Barton led a countywide committee to propose such a law enforcement tool in Hays County.

Barton ended up proposing a prohibition against discharges on acres of two acres or less, with numerous exceptions. Firearms discharge on small lots would be allowed for ceremony and in cases of pest control and self-defense, among others. Adjacent landowners could also pool their lots to surpass two acres if they wished. Barton also proposed a ban on shooting on lots of ten acres or less between the hours of 10 p.m. and 6 a.m., with similar exceptions.

The committee crafting the proposal included Justice of the Peace Precinct 2 Constable James Kohler and JP Precinct 3 Constable Darrell Ayres, as well as an appointment from the HSCO.

Mike Cox, a concealed handgun license instructor and representative for the National Rifle Association (NRA) and Texas State Rifle Association (TSRA), also served on the committee. Cox told the commissioners last April that the NRA would not make hostile arguments about gunfire regulation on small lots.

Though law enforcement officers served on the committee and were quoted in media reports last April saying they had no legal tools prohibiting individuals from shooting on small lots, no law enforcement officers appeared in court when commissioners acted on the legislation Tuesday morning.

The court majority took the absence of county police as a persuasive argument against the regulation. Ford said their absence “is loud to me,” Sumter said their absence “speaks loudly to me,” and Conley said, “Without law enforcement being here saying they need this tool to make us safer, I can’t support this today.”

However, Barton mentioned that Kohler entered a statement of support for the record. Barton further argued that the absence of law enforcement officers should be read as political prudence, rather than opposition to the legislation.

“Frankly, I think you’re asking a lot of law enforcement officers who are elected,” Barton said to the other commissioners. “I suspect that has a lot to do with it.”

Commissioners opposing the measure also said they weren’t satisfied the measure would actually make county residents any safer. Commissioners said several Texas counties referencing the state statutes allowing discharge regulations have found them hard to enforce.

Conley said he found the proposal “a difficult issue for me to deal with personally and within my precinct.” Conley added that he received constituent feedback taking every position from outright gun bans to no regulation at all. In the end, said Conley, people with guns ought to recognize the deterrents in place,

“It’s hard to regulate irresponsibility,” Conley said. “I haven’t been able to be convinced at this time that this makes us safer.”

Sumter said she sees both sides of the issue, though she added that she has little use for guns. However, she said, the proposal needed more work.

“Will it actually do what we want it to do?” Sumter asked. “Will it really make us safer? And I just don’t think it will. But we need to continue to try. I don’t think this should be the end.”

Sumter went so far as to suggest tabling a vote so the issue could be further studied. But Barton said he believed he owed the Galacia family, the drafting committee and himself an up-or-down vote.

Thus, the vote came, the close 3-2 denial. Following the vote, Barton spoke briefly with members of the Galacia family who were present. Later, Barton said the issue probably is dead for now, considering its sensitivity during an election year.

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