Can Texas Pass a Gun Bill?
Open Carry and Campus Carry laws seemed destined to fly through the state’s Tea Party legislature. How they almost imploded.
They are so close.
In spite of years of fierce lobbying from advocates, a willing governor, and a legislature full of Tea Party Republicans, the two major gun-rights bills before the Texas state legislature—House Bill 910 which would overturn a ban on the open carry of handguns and Senate Bill 11 which would allow concealed handguns on college campuses—looked like they were doomed.
Now, thanks a quick compromise between lawmakers stripping a controversial amendment, which would have barred cops from stopping someone solely because he is carrying a handgun, at least one of the bills is likely to become law.
If there is one state expected to be gun-friendly, it’s Texas. And in some respects, it’s true: the state boasts a strong shooting culture and things like licenses and waiting periods don’t interfere with Texans’ right to bear arms. Recent state polling shows nearly half of eligible voters have guns in their homes (and likely more, since a freedom-loving 13 percent “preferred not to say”).
Still, for a growing and incredibly vocal contingent of Texans for whom “Shall not be infringed!” is a favorite rallying cry, any law regulating firearms is unconstitutional. And this legislative session seemed like their time to do something about the few but nonetheless “tyrannical” laws on the books restricting where and how all these guns could be carried.
Republican governor Greg Abbott is on their side and has promised to sign campus or open carry laws that reach his desk. Getting one there should have been be easy; they’ve got the bodies. Just over a third of the 181 seats in the state legislature are filled by Democrats, a dwindling minority thanks to creative redistricting. But it’s not just circumstance; the Texas open carry crowd has been singularly focused and tireless in their efforts towards relaxed gun laws. Texas is currently one of only six states that expressly forbid the carrying of handguns within plain view. A loophole allowed gun owners to carry rifles, shotguns, and antique pistols. So gun-rights advocates—most notably, Open Carry Texas, led by Army veteran CJ Grisham—met for armed marches and protests, carrying Gadsden flags through the state capital and showing up at fast food chains with assault rifles on their backs to make the point that the open carry of handguns should also be legal.
But the movement has faced a number of setbacks as well.
A deadly shootout between rival biker gangs in Waco that killed nine and injured at least 18 invited criticism from Assistant Police Chief Troy Gay, who said that the open carry of firearms would have make the confrontation even worse. Still, Gov. Abbott stood by the bill, saying, “Well, the shootout occurred when we don't have open carry. So obviously the current laws didn't stop anything like that."
Even before the biker brawl, law enforcement has protested the open carry bills about which the governor seems so keen. The overwhelming majority of Texas’s 800-plus police chiefs oppose the open carry of firearms, according to a survey by The Texas Police Chiefs Association.
There is also the issue of Kory Watkins and his band of libertarian gun-slingers, from whom even the open carry crowd has tried to distance itself, lest it be grouped with anti-law enforcement folks who stalk and heckle police officers and call for lawmakers who vote against open carry legislation to be charged with treason and hung from the nearest tree.
With a penchant for seeing his name in the papers, Watkins, a bartender and failed state congressional candidate, has brought enough negative attention to the open carry cause to tarnish its brand. His efforts to see unlicensed open carry written into law (perhaps motivated by a criminal record that would make him ineligible for a license) crescendoed in a confrontation with Rep. Poncho Nevarez—a dustup that led to panic buttons being installed in legislative offices. Open Carry Texas’s Grisham called Watkins a "a fringe lunatic" and responded to Watkins' threats against lawmakers by saying, "If Kory wants to get any favorable gun laws passed in Texas, he should move to Maine."
Still, somehow both open carry and campus carry bills moved through the legislature. And at the beginning of this week, even Democrats seemed resigned that they’d soon be made law. “It’s been clear from the beginning of this session that we would give more access to guns,” Dem Sen. Rodney Ellis, said during one debate. “That’s just Reality 101, whether I agree with it or not.”
But a last-minute appeal by law enforcement agencies to strip HB 910 of a so-called “stop-cop” provision before the open carry bill’s final vote sent it back to committee and what many feared was obscurity on Wednesday.
“The House just killed Open Carry,” Republican state Rep. Matt Rinaldi tweeted after the vote.
The controversial amendment would have prohibited police officers from stopping someone who was openly carrying a handgun to check if they were licensed to do so. Republican Sen. Don Huffines added the provision as a protection against civil-rights violations and racial profiling, but opponents said it tied the hands of police officers and in effect created an unlicensed open carry law.
However a quick compromise between a joint House/Senate committee to strip the bill of the amendment came as a surprise on Thursday evening, just hours after one state senator threatened a filibuster. A final vote could come as soon as today.
Now lawmakers are turning their attention back to the campus carry bill, which would allow licensed carriers to bring guns into classrooms, dorms and cafeterias, and it’s still got a shot, too—albeit it a longer one. House Republicans were able to force a late-night vote this week and although they won (101-to-47), the bill passed with several amendments so contentious that it may never get out of a conference committee alive.
The new provisions that need to be hammered out include the creation of gun-free zones, which weakens the bills in the eyes of Republicans, and the new inclusion of private schools, which may make it it poison to legislators concerned with property rights and government overreach, particularly for Sen. Brian Birdwell, author the Senate version of the bill, who happens to serve in the district that houses Baylor University, a private institution.
A number of university administrators have come out in opposition of the SB 11, including Thomas Keefe, president of the private University of Dallas, and University of Texas System Chancellor and a four-star admiral who oversaw the raid that killed Osama bin Laden, William McRaven. McRaven wrote in a letter to legislators that the campus carry bill would increase “both accidental shootings and self-inflicted wounds" on campuses.
Texas is one of 15 states that have taken up the campus carry issue this year, according to the Campaign to Keep Guns Off Campus. If SB 11 does find a way to Abbott’s desk, even in its watered-down version, it will be the first of its kind to win passage. Over half of the state bills—in Arkansas, Georgia, Florida, Montana, South Dakota, Virginia, West Virginia and Wyoming—have already been defeated.
While acknowledging they weren’t out of the woods yet, gun-control advocates were nevertheless hopeful with the bills’ stalling on Thursday, crediting an organized opposition of advocates, law enforcement officials, school administrators, and parents.
“The majority of Texans, including gun owners, don’t want open carry or campus carry,” Stephanie Burlingame, spokesperson the Texas chapter of Moms Demand Action, told The Daily Beast. “Educators are against it, families, students, law enforcement has said it’s a bad idea. So who are [Texas legislators] listening to on this matter?”
CJ Grisham couldn’t be reached for comment by Thursday, but whether both bills pass or not, Open Carry Texas seems poised to continue their efforts.
“I do not have ‘failure’ in my vocabulary. I don't recognize its existence,” Grisham wrote on his Facebook wall after HB 910 was initially sent back to committee. “You don't fail until you stop fighting and I have a lot of fight left in me.”
“So much for quitting Open Carry walks,” another member responded.