The near-certain signing into law of an open-carry gun measure will send Texas back to the days of the Wild West – at least legislatively.
The bill, passed by the state Legislature and expected to earn Gov. Greg Abbott’s signature within the next week, would reverse a 140-year-old ban on carrying handguns in plain sight. Despite its reputation as a pro-gun state, Texas is one of just five with an outright ban on open carry.
“It’s a thumbs up for law-abiding citizens,” said Rep. Debbie Riddle. Riddle, a Republican who represents part of Houston and co-sponsored the bill. “Everywhere there is a denial of Second Amendment rights, crime is through the roof. It’s a deterrent. If someone is going to rob a convenience store and there are other people inside with guns on their hips, they might think twice.”
“Criminals aren’t afraid of prison, they’re afraid of getting shot."
- C.J. Grisham, Open Carry Texas
After a contentious debate, in which state Second Amendment advocates even clashed with National Rifle Association officials over their tactics, the bill cleared both Republican-majority chambers along party lines. A related bill also awaiting Abbott’s likely signature would allow students and faculty members at public and private universities in Texas to carry concealed handguns into classrooms, dormitories and other buildings.
Texas is currently one of five states that does not allow licensed handgun owners to carry their weapons openly. The others are Florida, New York, Illinois and South Carolina, as well as Washington, DC. Several other states have such strict gun ownership laws that gun rights advocates consider them to have de facto bans on concealed or open carrying of weapons.
Critics say the relaxed gun regulations could spur an increase in crime, or at the least, accidental shootings.
"As a gun-owning Texas mom, this is not the Texas I want for my family or community," said Sandy Chasse with the Texas Chapter of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America.
But supporters counter that guns in plain sight will deter crime.
“Criminals aren’t afraid of prison, they’re afraid of getting shot,” said C.J. Grisham, president and CEO of Open Carry Texas.
Grisham’s group held rallies across the state prior to the vote, including events at which members openly carried long guns, which was already legal in Texas. That tactic brought a rebuke from the NRA and cleaved a rift between the two Second Amendment advocacy groups.
"To those who are not acquainted with the dubious practice of using public displays of firearms as a means to draw attention to oneself or one's cause, it can be downright scary," the NRA said in an unusual statement. "It makes folks who might normally be perfectly open-minded about firearms feel uncomfortable and question the motives of pro-gun advocates."
The fact that the debate prompted the NRA and some Republicans to distance themselves from more hard-core gun-rights advocates in Texas was a victory for gun control, said Ladd Everitt, spokesman for the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence,
“We saw the open carry debate in Texas this session as a win for gun violence prevention advocates,” said Everitt, who alleged that open-carry activists threatened to shoot legislators. “The goal all along here for Open Carry advocates was permitless open carry of handguns. They have failed at that, and the question now becomes what types of threats and violence are we likely to see before Texas legislators take up business again in 2017?”
Like the current concealed handgun law, the bill awaiting Abbott’s signature requires anyone wishing to openly carry a handgun to get a license. Applicants must be 21, pass a background check and get firearms training.
There are 44 other states in the Union with open carry laws already on the books.
Some 850,000 Texans already have permits to carry cooncealed weapons, according to said John Lott, president of the pro-Second Amerndment Crime Prevention Research Center, and a Fox News contributor. Since licensed gun owners commit firearms violations at a very low rate, Lott said, simply allowing them to carry guns openly will not create any new dangers for law-abiding citizens.
The notion that Texans who open carry their guns will start shooting each other is absurd,” Lott said. “Just because those people can now carry openly won’t change that, any more than the 44 other states that already allow open carry.”
A 2013 Texas Department of Public Safety study found only .3 percent of convicted crimes were committed by those holding a Concealed Handgun License.
Abbott, who has 10 days to sign the bill into law, has been a vocal proponent of “expanding the Second Amendment,” even tweeting after the measure passed: “Next destination: My Pen.”
If signed, the law would go into effect Jan. 1, 2016.