Texans: Carry this key chain in your pocket and it could land you in jail

This type of plastic self-defense key chain is illegal in Texas.
This type of plastic self-defense key chain is illegal in Texas. The Home Security Superstore

Texans legally can walk down any street carrying their long swords, Bowie knives and guns.

But plastic self-defense key chains — particularly those shaped like cats or dogs with pointy ears — are off-limits and illegal.

"It's a prohibited weapon," said Shannon Edmonds, a staff attorney with the Texas District and County Attorneys Association. "Unlike a firearm ... these are always and everywhere prohibited."

These key chains, which have been in the news recently in Texas, can cost less than $10 — unless you're caught with them in Texas.

If that happens, you could end up paying as much as $4,000 in fines and spending up to a year in county jail, under state law.

"It is odd to have a situation where a person carrying a plastic pink kitty cat key chain could be arrested and sentenced to a year in jail while the person carrying a 9mm handgun next to them is free to do so," said Mark P. Jones, a political science professor at Rice University in Houston. "But, at the same time, the person carrying the 9mm has a (license) ... whereas the person with the key chain may not.

"This is a case where a well-intentioned law to prevent the use of brass knuckles and similar weapons was written before the existence of" self-defense key chains, he said. "It would not be surprising to see the Texas Legislature address this issue during the upcoming 2019 legislative session."

These key chains fall under the state's ban on brass knuckles, which are defined as instruments made of a hard substance with finger rings or guards that are used to inflict injury on another person "by striking a person with a fist."

State law says possession of these key chains is a Class A misdemeanor.

"They are explicitly illegal," Edmonds said.

Knives and guns

Texas lawmakers have taken steps through the years to legalize previously off-limit weapons.

Just last year, a law went into effect making it legal for Texans to carry machetes, Bowie knives, swords, spears and daggers — any knife with a blade longer than 5 1/2 inches — in most places across the state.

There are still some restricted areas, such as schools, polling places, churches and many bars.

“This bill simplifies the complexity in our current knife laws, which can be confusing for Texans,” state Rep. John Frullo, a Lubbock Republican who sponsored House Bill 1935, said last year.

Lawmakers also passed a law that made it legal for licensed Texans to openly carry handguns as of Jan. 1, 2016. Before then, it already was legal to carry concealed handguns and shotguns or AR-15s in public.

Now Gun Owners of America has pinpointed Texas as their next battleground for constitutional carry, which would let gun owners carry their weapons openly or concealed without first getting a permit.

Lawmakers haven't said yet whether these self-defense key chains might be a focus during the next legislative session, which starts Jan. 8, 2019.

"There isn’t a big lobby for self-defense key chains so they don’t get as much attention as other weapons," said Brandon Rottinghaus, a political science professor at the University of Houston. "Many lawmakers have attempted to chip away at restrictions on self-defense weapons, so the ban on key chains might be the next to fall.

"Republican lawmakers are looking for interesting and personal ways to claim they have reduced government. Lifting the ban on self-defense key chains is an easy way to accomplish that goal."

Check local laws

Key chain weapons are easy to find online, particularly those in the shape of a cat or dog, with eye holes big enough for fingers and with very pointy ears.

Some of them are described as looking "sweet and innocent on your key ring" but able to "deliver a powerful self-defense blow to attackers."

The Home Security Superstore, one of many websites that sells the self-defense key chains, includes a disclaimer.

"By purchasing a self-defense weapon ... the buyer warrants that he/she is in compliance with all applicable federal, state and local laws and regulations regarding the purchase, ownership and use of the item," according to a statement on the company's website. "Please check local laws before ordering any self-defense weapon."

This law "is bizarre, but often legislators do not know or read of similar laws on these potential weapons," said Allan Saxe, an associate political science professor at UTA. "Many things can be used as weapons, and the legislature cannot address all of these issues simultaneously."

Banned weapons

Here is a list of banned weapoins in Texas, according to section 46.05 of the Texas Penal Code.

Explosive weapons, machine guns, short-barrel firearms or firearm silencers, unless these items are classified as relics or registered with the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

Knuckles (which also includes self-defense key chains because knuckles are defined as an instrument that is made of a hard substance and has finger rings or guards).

Armor-piercing ammunition.

A chemical dispensing device (except for items such as pepper spray).

A zip gun (an improvised firearm).

A tire deflation device.

Anna Tinsley: 817-390-7610, @annatinsley