The Texas House on Wednesday approved new rules that will allow legislators to eject hostile members of the public from their offices and recoup the cost of installing panic buttons to summon Department of Public Safety officers after confrontations between a handful of lawmakers and pro-gun activists on the opening day of the session.
The move, which was approved 137-5 in the Republican-dominated House, has some open carry advocates worried that the bad impression left by a small number of activists could endanger their legislative agenda.
“The chances of passing what they call ‘constitutional carry' got more remote with yesterday’s shenanigans,” said former Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson, who supports efforts to legalize the unlicensed open carry of handguns in Texas.
“That set the stage. That’s the topic of discussion now.”
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On Tuesday, about 15 to 20 members of the group Open Carry Tarrant County visited several lawmakers’ offices urging them to support House Bill 195, which seeks to undo Texas’ 125-year ban on the open carry of handguns. Several House members, including Poncho Nevarez, D-Eagle Pass, and Celia Israel, D-Austin, said the group hassled them or their staff.
In a video posted Tuesday online by Kory Watkins, the Tarrant County group’s leader, open carry activists can be heard calling Nevarez “a tyrant to the Constitution” and telling him he “won’t be here very long, bro.” Nevarez, who repeatedly asked the group to leave, later said he was concerned for the safety of his staff, family and constituents and complained that one activist “reeked of marijuana.”
“If I were an opponent of open carry, either with or without a license, I would show that video at every committee hearing between now and the end of the session related to open carry,” said Patterson, who added that the activists could have been arrested for assault even though the confrontation did not result in a physical altercation.
CJ Grisham, an Army veteran who heads a competing pro-gun group, had harsher words for the Tarrant County organization and its leader.
“Yesterday set us tremendously back,” he said. “It’s still possible to pass open carry legislation. What the House needs is to pass a bill to ban Kory Watkins from the Capitol.”
He said he planned to spend Wednesday doing damage control with the 15 or so lawmakers he believes encountered Watkins’ group, and will further distance himself from them on Jan. 26 when his group, Open Carry Texas, holds its own Capitol rally.
“What drives me nuts now is that one of the first times that guns are mentioned on the floor is to keep gun rights activists out rather than bring in gun rights,” Grisham said. “It’s just appalling.”
Reached for comment Wednesday, Watkins doubled down on the group’s confrontational rhetoric: “We need a panic button for people who don’t obey their oath to Constitution.”
Watkins said he did not expect his actions to have a negative effect on the many groups’ hopes of passing unlicensed open carry.
Sen. Brandon Creighton, R-Conroe, and Rep. James White, R-Hillister, who are sponsoring gun bills this session, agreed this incident would not hurt their chances.
“I personally don’t see that as hindering a thoughtful and reasoned debate on open carry,” said Creighton, who has filed bills to block federal gun control laws and set up a sales tax holiday for firearms and hunting supplies.
White, who is sponsoring a bill similar to HB195, added that he voted against the panic button amendment Wednesday because lawmakers “shouldn’t have anything else security-wise than the citizens that come here” since the Legislature has not “restored the right” to open carry handguns.
Just two representatives, White and Matt Shaheen, R-Plano, voted against the panic button amendment Wednesday, while Shaheen and four others voted against the entire packet of housekeeping rules in which the provision was included. The amendment was sponsored by Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer, D-San Antonio.
The Department of Public Safety declined to comment on how much installing panic buttons could cost the state or how many offices already have them, saying it “does not publicly discuss specific security measures at the state Capitol.”
Watkins, meanwhile, said his group is “absolutely” planning several more visits to lawmakers’ offices in the next two months.
On Facebook, he wrote, “Panic button for the master for when slaves speak out. Nothing to worry about. Honey Boo Boo on later.”