Politics & Government

Gun bills inch forward in Legislature

Scott Smith, a supporter of open carry gun laws, wore a pistol as he prepared for a rally at the Capitol in January.
Scott Smith, a supporter of open carry gun laws, wore a pistol as he prepared for a rally at the Capitol in January. AP

Hold on to those holsters, Texans.

It’s not legal to carry concealed handguns on college campuses or tote them openly throughout the state — at least not yet.

Both the House and the Senate have approved two hotly debated measures to expand gun rights by letting licensed Texans openly carry holstered handguns statewide and bring concealed handguns on any college campus.

But with less than a week left in the session, the bills aren’t going to Gov. Greg Abbott, who has said he would sign both into law. Instead, open carry now heads to a conference committee, and campus carry goes back to the Senate.

Supporters say there’s plenty of time to make sure the measures become law. Opponents plan to do everything they can to prevent that.

On Wednesday, the House gave final approval to campus carry, which was hastily approved right before the legislative deadline Tuesday night. It heads back to the Senate for consideration of significant changes.

“There is still a long way to go for this bill to become law,” said Rep. Chris Turner, D-Grand Prairie. “We will know in the next few days.”

Meanwhile, the House sent open carry to a conference committee to find a way to allay concerns from law officers about an amendment tacked on to the bill. It would prevent officers from asking people who are carrying guns whether they are licensed.

“We are making a quantum shift here going into an open-carry world,” said Rep. Phil King, R-Weatherford. “But we are making a shift that’s going to put officers in a very uncomfortable situation. … Maybe the middle ground is a phasing-in period.”

Lawmakers have until Monday, the end of the session, to send measures to Abbott for consideration.

The gun bills come 20 years after lawmakers made it legal for Texans to carry concealed handguns in most places.

Campus carry

Late Tuesday, less than half an hour before its midnight deadline, the House abruptly wrapped up an hourslong debate on campus carry, dramatically changing the bill by saying concealed handguns should be allowed not just at public universities but also at private ones.

After exempting health facilities and giving college officials the ability to declare gun-free zones on some of their campuses, they suddenly called for a vote even though more than 100 amendments were still pending.

Members approved the bill 101-47, with Turner and fellow Democratic Reps. Nicole Collier and Ramon Romero Jr., both of Fort Worth, among those opposed.

Collier had amendments pending that the House never heard. They would have let TCU and Texas Wesleyan University opt out of campus carry. Another proposal would have let any institution opt out if a shooting or similar incident occurred on campus.

“Why are we going to enforce the political views of a few on thousands of students?” Collier said.

Rep. Craig Goldman, R-Fort Worth, was among those who signed the House journal registering opposition to adding private universities to the bill. But he voted for the overall measure.

“I believe in the principles under the Second Amendment. However, I also believe in preserving and defending private-property rights,” said Goldman, whose district includes TCU.

He said he registered opposition because “waiving the authority of private universities like TCU to determine the best rules to govern their specific campus is a direct infringement on their rights as private-property owners.”

Supporters say campus carry — which failed in past sessions — is needed to let teachers and students defend themselves.

Officials at public colleges say the plan could cost nearly $50 million in coming years — an expense that might be passed to students.

The cost is high, they say, because additional officers, training, storage facilities and security technology would be needed.

“A watered down useless campus carry bill … what is this the 83rd session again?” Rep. Jonathan Stickland, R-Bedford, tweeted after the vote.

On Wednesday, House members quickly gave final approval, 102-44.

“It’s good policy,” said Rep. Matt Krause, R-Fort Worth. “I don’t understand why we would trust concealed-handgun license holders everywhere else in Texas except for college campuses.”

The bill heads back to the Senate, and the upper chamber can either agree to changes or send the matter to a conference committee to resolve differences in the waning days of the 84th legislative session.

Sen. Brian Birdwell, R-Granbury, who carried the bill in the Senate, referred comment to his spokesman, who did not issue a statement Wednesday.

Open carry

A measure to give licensed Texans the right to openly carry holstered handguns is headed to a conference committee. That’s because of an amendment that would prevent peace officers from asking Texans who are openly carrying guns whether they are licensed to do so.

The amendment was added in the upper chamber by Sen. Don Huffines, R-Dallas.

Law enforcement groups, including the Combined Law Enforcement Associations of Texas, implored lawmakers to drop the provision.

“Lawmakers need to put public safety over politics and allow Texas peace officers to make the decision on whether someone carrying a firearm should be questioned,” said Todd Harrison, president of CLEAT and a law officer for 30 years. “Let’s trust the judgment of Texas’ law enforcement professionals.”

Gun-rights advocates urged lawmakers to keep the amendment.

“We find it necessary to educate both these law enforcement unions and the liberty-loathing politicians in Austin about the fact that this law IS needed and does NOT change what is really already established case law,” Open Carry Texas President C.J. Grisham said in a statement. “Our members have witnessed firsthand what happens when an overzealous police officer stops a law abiding citizen who is peacefully exercising his right to keep and bear arms and does not want to engage in a consensual encounter.

“Our members have been handcuffed, stuffed in police cars, and even had loaded firearms pointed at them for doing so, which highlights the need for this legislation.”

King, worried that the amendment could “make it very difficult for police officers to do their jobs,” asked his colleagues to send the issue to a conference committee to “find some middle ground.”

Rep. Larry Phillips, R-Sherman, wasn’t convinced that was the right approach.

“I’m not quite sure this isn’t a way to make sure open carry doesn’t happen,” said Phillips, who carried the open-carry bill in the House.

Rep. Rafael Anchia, D-Dallas, was among those urging House members not to agree with the Senate’s change, saying the amendment makes open carry “unregulated and unenforceable” in Texas.

As Huffines stood on the House floor watching, the House voted 79-63 against agreeing with the Senate’s changes, sending the measure to a conference committee.

Anna M. Tinsley, 817-390-7610

Twitter: @annatinsley

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