Prominent Republican Dan Patrick accused of reneging on his promises after appearing lukewarm on open carrying of handguns
With its gun-toting cowboy image and a legislature crammed with ultra-conservative Republicans, Texas would seem the unlikeliest of states to draw the ire of pro-gun activists.
But gun-rights groups have aimed stinging criticism at politicians this month and hostilities intensified after Dan Patrick, the new lieutenant governor, said this week that he did not think a law to allow the open carrying of handguns in Texas would pass in the current legislative session, and that other issues such as education and tax cuts were more important.
Greg Abbott, the new governor, has said he would sign permissive gun bills into law, and supporting open carry was one of Patrick’s election campaign pledges. When Patrick was lukewarm on the issue at a Texas Tribune event last Tuesday, campaigners were infuriated and accused him of reneging on his promises.
One group from the Fort Worth area, Open Carry Tarrant County, posted on Facebook saying it is “time to hunt down the Republicans who don’t support the Constitution and the Republican Platform. Then, we will expose them and help them find a new job by making sure they won’t have a chance to ever get elected in Texas again. Time to start sending these people to California.”
On 13 January, the first day of the legislative session, Kory Watkins, the group’s president, uploaded footage to YouTube of members protesting in the office of Poncho Nevarez, a Democratic state representative, calling him a “tyrant to the Constitution of the United States of America” and blocking the door open when he insisted they leave.
After several lawmakers complained of harassment, the Texas House promptly approved rules enabling politicians to install panic buttons in their offices and Nevarez was given a security detail, the Houston Chronicle reported . Open Carry Tarrant County did not respond to a request for comment.
In mid-January another pro-gun group, Come And Take It Texas, was one of several that staged armed rallies on the steps of the capitol in Austin. They used a 3D printing machine called a Ghost Gunner, designed by the Texan anarchist Cody Wilson, to build the metal frame of an AR-15 rifle.
Buoyed by sweeping victories over Democrats in last November’s state elections, Texas Republicans peppered the new legislative session with gun bills. They include attempts to prohibit the enforcement of certain federal firearms laws in Texas; expand rights for attorneys and first responders; lower the minimum age for acquiring a concealed handgun permit; and create a tax-free gun supplies shopping weekend.
One decrees that “a school district may not punish a student in kindergarten through grade five for brandishing a partially-consumed pastry or other food item to simulate a firearm or weapon”. (That language refers to a single instance in which a Maryland elementary school student was suspended after chewing a Pop-Tart into the shape of a gun; contrary to the way the case has been presented by pro-gun activists, school officials have said that the suspension happened not because the Pop-Tart was made to resemble a gun but because the student had a history of disciplinary issues and was disruptive.)
Another proposal, called the teacher’s protection act, would authorise educators to use deadly force on school property, including on buses and at school-sponsored events, if they “reasonably believe” it is necessary to defend themselves or students. They would also be granted immunity from civil liability.
For years, citizens with concealed handgun licenses have even been allowed to bring their weapons into the Texas statehouse. They use a special fast-track entry lane that enables them to bypass the airport-style security measures used to inspect most visitors.
But the main focus for Texas gun rights advocates is gaining the right to openly carry handguns – preferably without the need for a license. Most states allow the carrying of handguns in plain sight, but Texas has banned the practice since the late 1800s. However, it does permit the open bearing of long arms, such as rifles, which last year led to demonstrations in Texas restaurants that even the NRA (before issuing a retraction) described as “downright weird”.
“The fact that we’re still fighting for those rights is aberrant to us Texans. We do have a reputation for being very pro-gun, so it boggles my mind why we don’t live up to that expectation and that stereotype that we have,” said CJ Grisham, founder of Open Carry Texas, which has distanced itself from the kind of militant tactics used by the Tarrant County group.
“[In the wake of the Sandy Hook massacre, former governor] Rick Perry was trying to recruit all these gun manufacturers and gun-related businesses to come to Texas and yet when they get here they realise, well, heck, nobody can carry my product without an expensive license,” said Grisham.
“I don’t necessarily blame Dan Patrick for his comments, he was commenting mostly on the state of events, from the way we understand it. Where my disappointment is, and where I believe our elected officials are failing Texas gun owners, is in the Senate. If the votes aren’t there, it means people aren’t doing what they campaigned on in this last election cycle.”
However, the ire of pro-gun campaigners has drawn a response from the other side of the debate. “Open carry creates fear and intimidation for citizens, and for law enforcement, it creates time-wasting ‘person with gun’ calls and confusion at active-shooter scenes. Texas legislators should really be focused on doing more to keep guns out of the hands of dangerous people by passing legislation to expand background checks on all gun sales,” said Brian Malte, senior national policy director for the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence.
Patrick backtracked on Wednesday, issuing a statement saying that he is an “avid gun owner” who remains “a steadfast supporter of the second amendment and Open Carry legislation”.
Grisham said he visits Austin about once a week to meet with legislators and push his case. “The base reason is to return our rights to us,” he said, adding that “we have a strong belief that open carry will positively impact the crime rate here in Texas” – a claim disputed by gun-control advocates.
A bill allowing concealed handguns on higher education campuses is set to pass imminently. On Thursday, the chancellor of the University of Texas system, former US Navy admiral William McRaven, wrote to senior Texas politicians to convey that “our parents, students, faculty, administrators, and law enforcement all continue to express their concerns that the presence of concealed handguns on campus would contribute to a less-safe environment”.
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