Texas Politics

Are Texas lawmakers ready to let gun owners carry without licenses?

Guns — and gun rights — are still a key topic at the Texas Legislature. This is a detail shot of guns at the Concealed Carry Expo at the Fort Worth Convention Center on April 7.
Guns — and gun rights — are still a key topic at the Texas Legislature. This is a detail shot of guns at the Concealed Carry Expo at the Fort Worth Convention Center on April 7. rmallison@star-telegram.com

A proposal to let Texans openly carry handguns across the state — without first getting permits — may soon be heading to the House floor for a vote.

This new request, dubbed Unlicensed or Permitless Carry, comes two years after state legislators passed laws letting licensed Texans openly carry guns across most of the state and conceal carry on many college campuses.

“The top priority at the end of the day is seeing unlicensed carry signed into law by the governor,” said Terry Holcomb Sr., a pastor and executive director of Texas Carry, a gun-rights group. “Everything else is second in priority to this bill.

“It was the only priority last session that didn’t get done and it’s something that needs to happen,” he said. “We’re not leading in the nation on this issue. We are following. … It’s quite unfortunate.”

Unlicensed or Permitless Carry evolved from the original plan of Constitutional Carry, which would remove restrictions — such as requiring Texans to have a License To Carry, which ensures training — for those carrying handguns.

This is just one of several gun proposals now ricocheting through the Texas Capitol.

“Obviously, it is an emotional issue in Texas, and those who support expanded gun rights are constantly seeking legislation to accomplish that goal,” said Jim Riddlesperger, a political science professor at Texas Christian University. “I really don’t know what may happen with gun legislation.

“It seems a fluid topic — as always.”

Opponents say these proposals, unlicensed carry in particular, are just misfires. And they are asking Texans to call their state lawmakers and ask them to vote against the proposals.

“This is what the extreme gun lobby wants,” said Marsha McCartney, a spokeswoman for the Texas chapter of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. “I don’t think the everyday person wants this.”

“I don’t think anyone would have actually thought guns on campus would pass” in 2015, McCartney said. “They turn a blind eye to what the citizens of the state want and then officials pander to the gun lobby. It’s ridiculous.”

Guns in Texas

In Texas, licensed gun owners may openly carry their handguns or keep them concealed.

But handguns were not allowed to be carried publicly here until 1995, when the Texas Legislature allowed gun owners to carry their handguns concealed in many areas of the state.

By 2016, Texans who are licensed — which means they are at least 21, have a clear criminal record and no record of mental illness — were allowed to openly carry handguns across the state except in certain areas.

Other laws also went into effect, such as allowing the concealed carry of handguns on college campuses.

Now the question is whether state lawmakers will weigh in on a plan that no longer requires Texans to be licensed to carry handguns.

At the beginning of the current legislative session, many Texas gun supporters pushed for so-called Constitutional Carry — a plan by state Rep. Jonathan Stickland, R-Bedford, that would let Texans carry firearms without a permit or safety training.

But there were concerns about the bill lowering the age limit to 18, impacting law enforcers’ ability to conduct stops and putting more guns owned by younger Texans on college campuses.

A House committee heard both Stickland’s bill, HB 375, and a similar proposal by state Rep. James White, R-Hillister.

After much discussion, White made changes to his proposal, House Bill 1911.

Unlicensed carry

The measure now keeps the age of those allowed to carry at 21 and requires carriers to meet the same restrictions Texans with a License To Carry meet, such as not having any felony convictions. They just wouldn’t have to take the steps, or pay the fees, to actually get a license.

White’s proposal requires those carrying to not be part of a criminal street gang. And it states that carriers must meet federal qualifications to buy and possess a handgun.

This bill was ultimately approved by the committee and awaits consideration in the House Calendars Committee, which could send it to the House for a floor vote. Local co-sponsors include state Reps. Matt Krause, R-Fort Worth, and Bill Zedler, R-Arlington.

Supporters lauded the historic committee vote moving the bill forward.

“HB 1911 … is a major step forward to restore the handgun rights Texans lost in the 1870s,” according to a statement from the Texas State Rifle Association.

The bill states that if a person carrying a gun is asked by a law enforcer for ID, he or she needs to show a driver’s license, state ID or “other proof of identity,” including a LTC if they have one.

The bill strikes churches, synagogues or “other established place(s) of religious worship” from the list of places where guns are not allowed. But it still allows such places to post signs saying guns aren’t allowed there.

The bill has generated so much concern with some critics — including Texas Gun Sense, Moms Demand Action and The Voice of Texas Law Enforcement — that they have joined together to hold a press conference Monday to outline some of their concerns.

“Since the state began loosening firearms training and other standards in 2013, the number of firearm accidents, injuries and deaths has risen each year, and reached a high of 3,200 in Texas for the last year on record, 2015,” according to a statement by the group of opponents.

“It’s a solution in search of a problem,” Andrea Brauer, executive director of the Austin-based Texas Gun Sense, has said of the bill.

Supporters disagree.

“This will remain the No. 1 legislative priority until it gets passed,” said Holcomb, who has been working with lawmakers on the bill. “Quite frankly, I would find it fairly inexcusable if we couldn’t get it done this legislative session.”

‘This bill has legs’

Stickland said he removed his support from HB 1911 because he believes the last-minute changes — including noting that any Texan who is behind on child support or owes the government money is no longer eligible for unlicensed carry — added a level of restrictions that no longer let White’s bill be considered Constitutional Carry.

“It basically gutted the bill,” he said. “I wasn’t OK with that.”

Stickland said he hasn’t completely given up on HB 375, and hopes it, too, will gain the approval of the House Committee.

“We are farther along on this than some people thought we would be,” he said. “It is the top issue to the grassroots Republican Party and a lot of members of the Texas House.”

But Stickland said he’s trying to get back on board with HB 1911 and hopes it will soon reach the House floor for consideration. If it does, Stickland said he believes the bill will pass.

But he doesn’t know how it will fare in the Senate.

“I think the Legislature needs to move on this this session,” Stickland said. “This bill has legs for sure.

“It isn’t going away,” he said. “It’s inevitable.”

Other proposals

This is just one of a number of gun proposals before lawmakers this year at the Texas Capitol. Lawmakers have until the end of the session, May 29, to pass or kill bills.

“Texas is a very pro-gun state and will remain this way for some time,” said Allan Saxe, an associate political science professor at the University of Texas at Arlington. “That is why there is always some legislation to expand gun rights nearly every session, especially from rural areas.”

Here’s a look at some of the other gun-related legislation before the Texas Legislature.

Cutting the cost of LTC licenses: SB 16 and HB 300 reduce the cost of a License To Carry in Texas from $140 to $40 — and the cost of a renewal from $70 to $40. Estimates show this measure, which has passed the Senate and heads to the House floor Tuesday, could cost the state around $15 million a year.

Clarifying school functions: SB 349, which could be considered by the Senate any day, clarifies what a “school activity” is so that guns are prevented at schools and school-owned facilities — and not other places, such as the Texas Capitol, which could be visited on a field trip — during school-sponsored activities.

First responders: SB 1408 would let first responders such as paramedics and volunteer firefighters carry concealed handguns in restricted areas. “As first responders answer our cries for help, we cannot leave them exposed to attack,” said state Sen. Don Huffines, R-Dallas, sponsor of the measure that has passed the Senate and been sent to the House.

Preventing gun transfers: HB 1229, which would prevent a firearm from being transferred to a person in the FBI maintained terrorist screening database, is pending in committee.

Gun show sales: HB 259, which would make it a criminal offense to sell a firearm at a gun show without using the National Instant Criminal Background Check System or without a record of the sale, has been referred to committee for review.

Suicide prevention: HB 3340, which requires certified License To Carry instructors to be able to speak to Texans seeking their licenses about suicide prevention, is pending in committee.

Tax break on firearms and hunting supplies: SB 133, which would exempt firearms, ammunition and hunting supplies from taxes from the first full weekend in September, has been referred to committee.

Restricting physician questions about firearms: SB 104, which has been referred to committee, would make it illegal for a doctor other than a psychiatrist to ask Texans about whether firearms are on their property, under their control or in their home.

“Gun legislation is a favorite segment of the Republican base and is an easy target for legislators looking to move the Legislature in a more conservative direction,” said Brandon Rottinghaus, a political science professor at the University of Houston. “Given tight deadlines and a looming budget battle, many issues are going to wither on the vine, including much of the proposed permitless carry legislation.

“Other gun-related legislation — like lowering license fees or allowing first responders to carry firearms — will likely pass since they are as much about lowering fees and supporting first responders as they are about guns,” he said. “Pushing these through gives a nod to the base but allows the legislators to focus on other issues as well with the short time left in session.”

Anna Tinsley: 817-390-7610, @annatinsley

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