What Does The Fight to Keep the ‘Gun Show Loophole’ Open Mean for Texans?

When he was principal of Irving’s North Lake Early College High School, Sam Eppler would often talk with the school’s police resource officer about ammunition.

If someone walks in with a weapon of war, the officer wondered, what am I going to do with my 9mm sidearm?

It’s a question Eppler, a 27-year-old congressional candidate, is still pondering. The young Democratic hopeful is quick to point out that he “totally agrees with the Second Amendment,” but if he wins his race and wrests Texas’ 24th District from Beth Van Duyne, he plans to make gun safety a top priority in Congress. Specifically, he wants to implement universal background checks and mandatory waiting periods for assault-style weapons.

“I’ve shot some of those weapons before,” he says, “and there’s no part of me that thinks there’s a problem with waiting a moment and asking some questions of the person trying to buy them.”

On that note, he praises the administration of President Joe Biden for its efforts to close the so-called “gun show loophole,” which allows dealers — even those without licenses — to sell firearms at gun shows without checking whether the buyer can legally own the weapon. In April, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) submitted a rule that would have required licensure for anyone who sells guns for profit, while also requiring buyers to undergo a background check.

Attorney General Ken Paxton sued to keep the loophole open and won, at least temporarily.

A federal district court halted the rule from going into place until at least June 2, and Paxton decried Biden’s attempt to “nullify the Second Amendment.”

It’s not a particularly surprising move from an attorney general keen to pick fights and prove his ultraconservative bona fides, but interviews with politicians, experts and advocates help illustrate the potential danger and the larger motives behind this particular fight.

“For a small subset of Republican voters, this is the issue upon which they vote,” says Cal Jillson, a political science professor at Southern Methodist University. “Paxton needs those voters, because turnout is high among that group.”

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Ammunition hangs from a weapon displayed at booth during the NRA annual meeting in May 2024.

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

According to several polls, most Texans — including the majority of Republicans — support measures like enhanced background checks. As part of their ongoing public opinion polling on gun control, the Texas Politics Project asked voters if they support or oppose requiring criminal and mental health background checks on gun purchases, including those that happen at gun shows. Sixty-seven percent of Republicans said they would support such a law.

“I’ve shot some of those weapons before, and there’s no part of me that thinks there’s a problem with waiting a moment and asking some questions of the person trying to buy them.” – Sam Eppler, congressional candidate

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But experts like Jillson say people shouldn’t put too much stock in that number.

“The polling is helpful, but you have to realize it’s just a subset,” he says. “Paxton and Republican candidates know that if they don’t have a majority in the primary they’re defeated, and to get that majority, they have to appeal to the conservatives.”

Jillson also notes that the move is pure politics: The suit, while successful thus far, is likely to fail in the long term, he says, yet it will likely score Paxton some political points. As political scientist Brandon Rottinghaus puts it, “For most conservative Republicans, there’s never a bad time to be against the federal government. If it’s about guns, then that’s even more politically sweet.”

Paxton’s move continues a clear pattern of challenging the Biden administration on issues that are red meat for ultraconservative voters. Earlier this year, he announced a suit against the Environmental Protection Agency in the hopes of halting a new rule designed to curb harmful methane emissions. Paxton’s argument was that the rule — which requires equipment upgrades for leak detections — would put manufacturing facilities out of business. He also claimed, without evidence, that the rule is “not based on sound science.”

“Last time I checked, Ken Paxton is barely a lawyer,” Harris County Attorney Christian Menefee, who supports the rule, told reporters after hearing of Paxton’s objections. “He’s certainly not a scientist. I don’t think I’m going to take his advice on that one.” Menefee, a Democrat, is the elected chief lawyer representing the county in civil matters.

According to Jillson, each lawsuit is part of Paxton’s larger strategy to cement himself as the champion of the far right in Texas.

“He may not win every lawsuit, because, at least in the case of the gun show lawsuit, the way he’s describing it is untrue,” Jillson says. “It’s not true that I have to do a background check if I sell to you; I only have to do a background check if I have a business purpose. But there are a lot of things in politics that aren’t true but are still helpful electorally.”

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Is Paxton courting those on the far rightwho live in opposition to the government?

Brandon Bell/Getty Images

Multiple people interviewed for this story found the timing of Patxon’s loophole lawsuit particularly curious. The AG announced the suit in the final weeks before the May 28 runoffs, which served as another inflection pointin the ongoing GOP civil warbetween the party’s far-right and less-far-right conservatives. House Speaker Dade Phelan has been the primary target of Paxton’s vitriol since the speaker led the effort to impeach the AG, and while Phelan narrowly held on to his seat, six of his allies (and fellow Paxton targets) lost their seats.

The impeachment and school vouchers are the two primary issues driving the GOP’s infighting, but the friction in the party has become a contest to see who is the most conservative — a territory Paxton and his camp can try to claim with efforts like the ATF lawsuit.

Further, the civil war shows no signs of slowing down.

In a statement after the results were tallied, Paxton said, “My message to Austin is clear: to those considering supporting Dade Phelan as Speaker in 2025, ask your 15 colleagues who lost reelection how they feel about their decision now. You will not return if you vote for Dade Phelan again.”

Yet even as Phelan v. Paxton continues to earn the lion’s share of attention, another intraparty fight has shown signs of heating up. The AG has repeatedly criticized Sen. John Cornyn, who was a key player in helping Congress pass the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act in the wake of the Uvalde school shooting in 2022 that left 19 elementary school students and two teachers dead. The law increased mental health and school security funding and created incentives for states to implement red flag laws that allow courts to take away guns from those deemed a threat to themselves or others. Texas does not have a red flag law. The act also closed the “boyfriend loophole,” which allowed people convicted of domestic abuse to own a gun.

Cornyn was famously booed at the 2022 Texas GOP convention after his efforts to pass the bill, and Paxton has floated the idea of challenging the senator. Last fall, shortly after being acquitted by the state Senate, Paxton used an interview with conservative commentator Tucker Carlson to blast Cornyn (“I can’t think of a single thing he’s accomplished for our state or even for the country,” he said) while saying “everything’s on the table for me” in terms of a potential future Senate run.

Interestingly, Biden’s attempt to close the gun show loophole is a provision of the Safer Communities Act, the very legislation Cornyn championed. But Cornyn has distanced himself from the president’s latest effort, calling it “an outright lie” that it has anything to do with the 2022 legislation and claiming in a statement that the administration’s “real goal” is “to take away the firearms of every law-abiding American.” Cornyn has also vowed to fight to keep the gun show loophole open at the federal level.

This about-face comes as Cornyn prepares for reelection in 2026 and, more immediately, vies to succeed Mitch McConnell as the GOP’s leader in the U.S. Senate. In response to the latter news, Paxton took to social media to denigrate the senator.

“It will be difficult for @JohnCornyn to be an effective leader since he is anti-Trump, anti-gun, and will be focused on his highly competitive primary campaign in 2026,” he wrote. “Republicans deserve better in their next leader and Texans deserve another conservative senator.”

Cornyn, perhaps interpreting this message as Paxton’s threat to run, issued a simple reply: “Hard to run from prison, Ken.”

Rottinghaus believes these online spats underscore the larger fissures happening in the Texas GOP, fissures which have pitted “the old guard,” of which Cornyn is a member, against an increasingly successful far right wing.

“John Cornyn has got to be a little worried about his right flank,” Rottinghaus says. “I don’t think he’s concerned every day like members of the legislature are, but I think he’s worried.”

Still, Rottinghaus points out that Cornyn has previously beaten back challengers. And as he fights attempts to close the gun show loophole, he doesn’t appear to be afraid of a Paxton challenge.

“Cornyn is willing to call Paxton out,” he says. “Maybe it’s his age, his seniority, the record he’s amassed winning elections, but he does not seem afraid of Ken Paxton. And he probably shouldn’t be. Paxton can present a formidable front, but I don’t think it’s an obvious win.”

There’s another reason critics are troubled by the timing of Paxton’s ATF lawsuit: It arrived around the same time as the two-year anniversary of the Uvalde shooting and the one-year anniversary of the shooting at the Allen Premium Outlets in which eight people and the gunman died.

“It’s very despicable for Paxton to be doing this right now,” says Kathleen Thomspon, the executive director of Progress Texas. Her organization tries to engage voters beyond party lines, and she says gun safety is “right at the top of the list” of voters’ concerns, alongside issues like abortion rights, voting rights and environmental justice.

Thompson also believes Paxton is taking a page from former President Donald Trump’s playbook and courting those on the far right who live in opposition to the federal government. This strategy is why Trump chose Waco — former home of the Branch Davidians — as the site of his first 2024 campaign rally, Thompson says, and this strategy is at least partly why Paxton wants to fight Biden tooth and nail on the gun-show loophole.

Julie Johnson, a Texas legislatorturned Democratic congressional candidate, told theObserver something similar in a recent interview.

“The reality is that Ken Paxton gets his power from the far right side of the Republican Party base,” she says. “That’s where he gets his support, and that’s why he continues to pursue these far-right policies and sue the Biden administration.”

“It’s very despicable for Paxton to be doing this right now.” – Kathleen Thomspon, Progress Texas.

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Johnson fended off nine opponents to win her primary, and in November, she will face Republican Darrell Day to see who will take over U.S. Senate hopeful Colin Allred’s seat in the U.S. House. But Johnson isn’t waiting until November to start laying the groundwork for success in D.C. She says she has already visited the capital and is trying to forge relationships with people on the other side of the aisle.

“Americans want their government to function,” she says, “and that means members of both parties have to listen, learn and collaborate when it’s useful.”

She believes meaningful gun control legislation is far more possible at the federal level than it is back home in Texas, and her fellow congressional hopeful Eppler shares that view. That’s one reason he’s running, as he recalls all the days he worried about a shooting happening in the school where he worked.

“One thing I was always worried about was someone could go purchase the same rounds that are being fired in Ukraine, and do it in about 30 seconds,” he says.

He is fully aware that any efforts to change existing laws will be met with charges that Democrats want to take away Americans’ guns — the same kind of charges Cornyn recently levied at Biden. But to him, “taking away people’s guns is a red line,” and he emphasizes that such a seizure is not the intent behind the loophole closure.

The intent is to keep people like his former students and employees safe.

“If we can stop one school shooting from happening, to me, that’s one thing we should take very seriously.”