Davis’ support of open carry divides Democrats

02/06/2014 7:53 PM

02/07/2014 9:18 AM

State Sen. Wendy Davis has taken plenty of shots from conservatives for proposing new gun restrictions, but on Thursday she faced blow-back from fellow Democrats over gun rights.

The fallout began when Davis embraced so-called open-carry laws, which would allow Texans to pack pistols on their hips. Under current law, people licensed to carry handguns must keep them concealed.

“I’m surprised by it. I don’t think it’s a good signal to our children in this state that people can open-carry something that is so dangerous and intimidating to others,” said Frances Schenkkan, board member of Texas Gun Sense, which opposes open-carry legislation. “It sends a message that this is the norm and children are not as able to get away from it.”

While the position essentially mirrors the stance of her likely Republican opponent, Attorney General Greg Abbott, it puts at her odds with statements by the Texas Democratic Party and her fellow senator, Leticia Van de Putte of San Antonio, the Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor.

Van de Putte looked flummoxed Thursday morning in a Texas Tribune interview when asked about the revelation — reported overnight by The Associated Press — that Davis wants to allow Texans to carry firearms in public.

“The discussions that I have had with the law enforcement back home, they think that open carry does not make their job any easier, and I’m with them,” Van de Putte said. “This is one where Wendy and I are on a different page.”

Texas Democratic Party Chairman Gilberto Hinojosa also said he does not support open carry, but he noted that many Democrats in Texas are members of the National Rifle Association and have supported expanding gun rights.

“We’re not in favor of it,” he said. “The position that we’re taking at the Democratic Party today, we don’t think that promotes the safe use of weapons in Texas.”

Hinojosa said Davis could lose support from some gun control advocates, but he predicted that liberals will keep up their “intensity” for her campaign because they’re more concerned with bread-and-butter issues such as education and healthcare.

Privately, though, some of Davis’ top supporters said they were caught off guard and disappointed by her embrace of a position that has sparked divisions even among traditional supporters of strong or expanded gun rights.

And Davis is unlikely to attract much support from pro-gun groups.

“Wendy Davis is as pro-gun as Ann Richards,” Alice Tripp, director of the Texas State Rifle Association, said in a message from her Twitter account. Richards, the state’s last Democratic governor, famously opposed a referendum calling for a concealed-handgun law, and many said it contributed to her defeat in 1994.

The National Rifle Association was even harsher.

“This is an election-year conversion for Wendy Davis. … As a state legislator, Wendy earned an F rating from the NRA,” NRA spokeswoman Catherine Mortensen said.

The Abbott campaign issued a statement questioning the move, saying it will not help her “be a straight shooter when it comes to the facts of her anti-gun record.”

As a member of the Fort Worth City Council, Davis fought a lonely battle to require background checks at city-held gun shows. And last summer, she told the Texas Tribune that she would “happily” sign a bill making the checks mandatory statewide if she’s elected governor.

She also opposed efforts to allow people with concealed-handgun licenses to carry their guns on college campuses. Texas is one of five states that specifically ban the public display of handguns, according to the pro-gun group OpenCarry.org.

Davis’ statement

In a questionnaire submitted to the AP, Davis said she supports making Texas an open-carry state.

“Do you support ‘open carry’ of handguns in Texas and why or why not?” the AP asked her, according to the Davis campaign, which provided a copy of the questionnaire.

Davis’ answer: “Yes. And state government should be sensitive to private property owners (including governmental, education, religious, health care and other institutions) to determine whether to allow open carry on their own properties.”

Davis was also asked to describe her “vision” for implementing open carry in Texas. She said people who want to openly carry their firearms should be subject to the same laws and restrictions that concealed-handgun licensees face. That would include background checks and training requirements.

“That should help ensure that only mentally stable, law-abiding citizens may carry whether concealed or open,” she wrote.

Not all of Davis’ bedrock supporters were surprised or upset by her embrace of a position that puts her far to the right of most Democrats.

Wealthy Austin philanthropist Marc Winkelman, a Davis donor and supporter who has backed gun restrictions, said her newly articulated position on open carry hasn’t shaken his enthusiasm for the Fort Worth senator.

“I don’t think I would ever support any liberalizing of gun laws in America personally, but I don’t see a contradiction in supporting a candidate who supports open carry when I don’t,” he said. “It doesn’t surprise me that she would have this position as a candidate for governor, that she would support things like this. … This isn’t even on the list of issues that I am particularly concerned about.”

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