Politics & Government

Are Texans confused about open carry?

Nearly 1 million Texans have been able to openly carry holstered handguns in the state since Jan. 1.

And in the more than three weeks since the law went into effect, few problems have arisen, a group of law enforcers and attorneys told state lawmakers during a three hour legislative committee hearing Tuesday.

“I wish I had some exciting stories to tell, but I don’t,” Luis Gonzalez, assistant director of the Texas Department of Public Safety, told the Senate State Affairs Committee at the Texas Capitol. “Our interaction with license holders has been very limited and very uneventful.”

But lawmakers say it’s clear that questions about the law remain.

That’s why they are trying to determine what tweaks are needed to make the law less confusing.

“The most often complaint I’m hearing is the uncertainty,” said state Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, a member of the committee. “What are the rules? What is the law? Where can I? Where can’t I?

“The public is still very confused,” said Nelson, whose district includes part of Tarrant County. “The more we can do to inform the public, ... the better it is for everyone.”

“There’s still some work to do,” agreed state Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston, who heads the committee.

Lawmakers Tuesday not only heard from law enforcers and legal experts about the open carry law, but they also received an update from college chancellors about work underway to prepare for campus carry — a law that goes into effect Aug. 1 allowing licensed Texans to carry concealed handguns on public college campuses.

At a time where thousands of people are injured or die every year from guns, more needs to be done to inform Texans of the law, said Andrea Brauer, executive director of Texas Gun Sense.

“We have a gun violence problem in our state,” she said. “I think we need to do a better outreach campaign.”

The latest numbers show that 937,000 people, around 4 percent of the state’s 27 million residents, have a license to carry, according to the Texas Department of Public Safety.

Open carry

Licensed Texans could legally begin openly carrying their handguns this year, since state lawmakers last year approved open carry.

The law basically states that openly carried handguns are allowed anywhere concealed handguns were allowed in the past.

“We’re just not seeing people openly carrying on the street,” said Justin Wood, chief prosecutor in the Harris County District Attorney’s Office major offenders division.

Business owners who don’t want handguns on their property may post signs preventing them. And guns aren’t allowed in some locations such as election sites, racetracks, schools while children are there and courtrooms.

Some questions remain, such as whether guns are allowed on school campuses when school isn’t in session and there are no school-sponsored activities going on, whether guns are allowed in places of worship and whether law enforcers can ask gun-toting Texans to show their license to carry.

And there are questions about whether local governments are correctly preventing guns from being carried onto some properties. The Texas Attorney General’s Office is still reviewing complaints, such as those filed about whether it’s proper to restrict guns from the Fort Worth Zoo.

Jan. 1 was the first day that Texans who are licensed — which means they are at least 21, have a clear criminal record and no record of mental illness — could legally carry their guns openly.

Campus carry

Texans with concealed handgun licenses have been able to carry on college campuses, but not in buildings, since lawmakers approved the concealed handgun law more than 20 years ago, lawmakers say.

Lawmakers last year approved campus carry — allowing licensed Texans as of Aug. 1 to carry concealed handguns at public universities in Texas and at any private university that doesn’t declare their campuses off limits to handguns. The law goes into effect for community colleges next year.

A number of private universities, including Texas Christian University, Texas Wesleyan University and the Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, have already decided to opt out of allowing guns on campus.

Chancellors at the state’s six largest public universities told lawmakers that their campuses are working on policies, trying to determine which areas should be off-limits to concealed carry, and they will have policies in place when the law goes into effect.

“We anticipate during the next month the recommendations from the three campuses will come in,” said Lee Jackson, chancellor of the University of North Texas System, which includes the UNT Health Science Center in Fort Worth.

UNT’s Denton campus recently released a proposed policy for its campus that prohibits concealed handguns in areas such as: college sporting events or competitions, places of worship, polling places for elections, any place used as a court, areas where “substances designated as ‘immediately dangerous to life and health’ are present” such as the Clean Room at Discovery Park, labs where biological hazards are stored, health clinics, areas where services to minors are provided and graduations.

The proposal also allows a temporary prohibition of concealed handguns under certain circumstances, such as when it appears there is a threat, there has been a history of violence or where a “large-scale activity” carries a “reasonable threat to health or safety.”

Policies for other UNT campuses, including Fort Worth’s health science center, have yet to be formally proposed or made public.

The campus carry law lets license holders statewide carry them into dorms or classrooms, instead of requiring them to take their handguns back to their vehicles before entering the buildings.

The only people legally allowed to carry concealed handguns on campus are those who have a license, meaning they are at least 21 and have met requirements including training and proficiency tests.

Jackson and other chancellors said they have yet to hear much of an outcry from parents of students, but they expect to receive more feedback once policies are formally proposed or put into effect on campus.

Some professors have expressed concern about allowing guns in their classrooms and have suggested that perhaps those carrying sit in the back of their classrooms.

Joan Neuberger, a history professor at the University of Texas in Austin and co-chair of the steering committee for Gun Free UT, said she and other professors try to foster an “environment of absolute trust and respect in the classroom” which leads students to openly talk about any issues of concern.

She said only a few people want this law — legislators, those who sell guns and a small minority of those who have a license to carry.

“I don’t know if I can do this if I don’t know if the person talking to me has a gun in their backpack,” she said.

Texas senators asked college officials to not call attention to those who want to carry concealed handguns in college.

“They have a right to carry (guns) and have passed a background check, Huffman said. “I hope you don't put these individuals in a place where they are treated differently than other students.”

Anna Tinsley: 817-390-7610, @annatinsley