Politics & Government

Gun bills clear key Texas Senate committee

A demonstrator helped hold a large “Come and Take It” banner at a rally in support of open carry gun laws at the Texas Capitol late last month.
A demonstrator helped hold a large “Come and Take It” banner at a rally in support of open carry gun laws at the Texas Capitol late last month. AP

Following an all-day showdown over a pair of proposals to allow guns to be carried openly across Texas and concealed on public college campuses, a key state Senate committee approved both bills late Thursday.

Twenty years after lawmakers first made it legal for Texans to carry concealed handguns in most places statewide, the Senate State Affairs Committee took hours of testimony from more than 100 people on both sides of the controversial proposals before voting 7-2 along party lines on each of the bills. Voting against the bills were the committee’s two Democrats.

It was the first major committee action of the new Legislature, and Senate leaders wanted it that way to underscore the top priority status they are giving to the gun bills.

New Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and other Republicans praised the passage, calling it a landmark moment in the push for open carry. “To my knowledge, this is the first time open carry has ever passed out of committee in either the Senate or the House,” he said.

State Sen. Craig Estes, R-Wichita Falls, said it’s time to pass a measure that would allow the licensed open carry of modern handguns in Texas. “I’m asking this legislative body to boldly go where 46 states have already gone,” he said. “We are trying to right an ancient wrong.”

Regarding the campus carry bill, state Sen. Brian Birdwell, R-Granbury, declared: “Rights that are granted by God are ours to protect. They are not to be delegated.”

State Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, said it’s not the right time for either proposal.

“There are an endless number of more pressing challenges facing this Legislature,” Ellis said.

The heated and emotional gun proposals — which would allow students, professors and visitors alike to carry concealed handguns on the campuses of public universities in the state and let Texans get licenses to openly carry their weapons just as they keep them under cover now — have been debated for years and have been unable to pass the Legislature.

But this year, with Gov. Greg Abbott saying before the session ever began that he would sign an open-carry bill if it makes it to his desk, many believe both proposals have found new life.

As the testimony was underway, and Texas Department of Public Safety troopers stood in and outside the hearing room, one man — Travis Raymond Kuenstler, 34, a member of Open Carry Texas from Big Spring — was arrested at the south entrance of the Capitol for criminal trespassing, DPS records show.

Emotions have been high on this issue, which has ramped up in recent years, as supporters of the movement have taken to the streets with semiautomatic rifles and black powder pistols, which are legal to openly carry in Texas, hoping to draw attention to their cause.

Kory Watkins, a leader of Tarrant County Open Carry, recently posted online a video some say threatened the safety of lawmakers who don’t support making it legal for Texans to openly carry their handguns.

That followed a dust-up earlier this session between local open-carry supporters and at least one lawmaker — state Rep. Poncho Nevarez, D-Eagle Pass. The lawmaker indicated he doesn’t support open carry, leading to an aggressive conversation where supporters told him he “won’t be here very long, bro.”

Watkins again drew attention Thursday, when he said the “right” of carrying handguns has been turned into a “privilege” for which Texans must apply and pay.

If the Legislature doesn’t pass open carry, Watkins said, “I will walk around until my feet bleed to make sure you’re never elected to office again.”

At issue

The two bills discussed Thursday: Senate Bill 11, which lets concealed handguns be carried on college campuses and Senate Bill 17, which lets Texans with concealed handgun licenses openly carry their holstered handguns throughout the state.

Tarrant County state Sens. Konni Burton, R-Colleyville, Kelly Hancock, R-North Richland Hills, and Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, are among the co-authors of campus carry. Hancock and Nelson also are co-authors of the open-carry bill.

Gun-rights activists, law enforcers, college chancellors, concerned mothers and attorneys were among those weighing in on the two proposals.

Law enforcers were divided.

“We don’t believe it’s needed,” said Austin Police Chief Art Acevedo, who noted there would be costs to retrain officers because they would be responding to police calls differently than they do now.

“It’s a bad idea,” he said. “What are we trying to fix?”

McLennan County Sheriff Parnell McNamara said campus carry gives Texas students a chance to protect themselves.

“Police can’t be everywhere at once,” he said. “People have a right to survive. They have an obligation to get home [alive] to their loved ones.”

Arlington Police Chief Will Johnson said he has seen the debate over open carry grow — particularly in his community — in recent years.

Arlington has been ground zero for many efforts to change gun law, most recently as open-carry supporters watch police go about their business while they prominently display their long guns.

Johnson asked lawmakers to consider adding more protections for law enforcers into their bill, including specifically stating that police officers have the authority to disarm people and asking for punishment for interfering with police duties to be bumped to a felony from a misdemeanor.

“At the end of the day, these are police officers trying to serve their communities with honor,” he said. “They just need some assistance.”

Campus carry

Birdwell described this measure as a “campus personal protection act.”

He said any areas off limits now under the state’s concealed handgun law, such as hospitals or child care facilities or football stadiums, would remain off limits on college campuses.

That means most medical facilities likely wouldn’t be impacted by the bill, unless there are administrative-only buildings that don’t house any medical services.

University of Texas System Chancellor William McRaven has said he worries that concealed handguns at colleges will make those campuses less safe for all, particularly because stress and guns are not a good mix. He wrote in a letter to lawmakers that he is concerned with accidental shootings, suicide and more, and that the presence of concealed handguns “will make campus a less safe place.”

Texas A&M System Chancellor John Sharp sent a letter to lawmakers as well, saying he has “complete trust and faith” in his students and professors, which is why Texas A&M “will not have a position on this issue and will not oppose campus carry.”

University of North Texas System Chancellor Lee Jackson noted that there may be a “younger than average population, some living away from home for the first time” who could be negatively impacted by this bill. “My only suggestion for improvement … would be to delegate some of this responsibility” to those who govern the universities.

Open carry

Texas is one of a half-dozen states that doesn’t allow any form of open carry, according to the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence.

Patrick, an open-carry advocate, drew massive media attention last month when he said he didn’t believe the open-carry legislation had enough support to pass at the time.

Within days, after talking to many open carry supporters, he worked to clarify his position and fast-tracked open-carry legislation, sending it to committee for a hearing.

Texans may openly and legally carry long guns in public. But it has been illegal for more than 125 years to openly carry handguns.

This bill, Estes said, would “take our existing [concealed handgun licenses] and turn them into handgun licenses [where people] could carry concealed or openly.”

Staff writer John Gravois contributed to this report.

Anna Tinsley, 817-390-7610

Twitter: @annatinsley

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