Texas gun supporters divided on best approach to legalizing open carry

In Texas, where toting guns is as second nature to some as wearing cowboy hats, there’s a rare and growing divide over firearms.

Many Second Amendment supporters are united on the end goal: Changing the way guns are carried in Texas and letting handgun owners openly carry their firearms.

But they disagree on how to get there.

Groups of open-carry advocates have been drawing attention to the issue by carrying long guns in public places such as neighborhoods and shopping areas, which is legal, trying to prove that the mere sight of firearms isn’t a cause for concern.

One of their recent demonstrations drew nationwide media attention when it coincided with a Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America meeting in Arlington; at least one mom said she was scared and intimidated.

Now, even some gun-rights supporters say this is not the proper way to move their quest forward.

“I think the tactics some people have been using aren’t helping that much,” said Ben Ferguson, a conservative political commentator, radio show host and staunch supporter of gun rights. “I just don’t think you are going to win as many people to your side by walking around carrying rifles … in public.”

Open-carry advocates disagree.

“That’s like saying if you want to fight for free speech, shut up,” said C.J. Grisham, president and CEO of Open Carry Texas. “I reject that notion. It doesn’t make sense.

“If you don’t exercise your rights, you’ll lose them,” said Grisham, 39, of Temple.

‘Win hearts and minds’

Open Carry Texas members have been walking around neighborhoods and public places with their long guns, hoping to draw attention to the issue.

Last month, hundreds of activists carrying shotguns and rifles gathered outside the Alamo for a “Come and Take It San Antonio” rally. San Antonio has an ordinance that limits open carrying of firearms to police and security, but the ordinance wasn’t enforced that day. Texas Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson, who is running for lieutenant governor, approved holding the rally there.

Grisham said: “We want to get people comfortable with seeing guns. We’ve had over 500 of these walks in the state. Not a single person has been shot, threatened, harmed, whatever. Everything we do is completely legal.

“We are trying to win hearts and minds.”

That’s not the way to do it, according to officials with the Moms Demand Action group.

“Your average person isn’t comfortable running into a person carrying a loaded AR-15 in the cheese aisle of the grocery store,” said Janet Jones, co-leader of Moms Demand Action's Texas chapter. “A very extremist viewpoint on gun laws and gun rights has developed.”

Now, she said, at a time when work is underway nationwide to strengthen the background check system, others are pushing for changes in the opposite direction.

“Extremists on the other end of the spectrum … have hijacked the dialogue and are now trying to dictate to the rest of us what should be normal and acceptable,” she said. “These aggressive-carry folks are angry and loud, and because their tactics are so shocking and out of the mainstream, they get attention.”

Subject to intimidation?

This month, members of the Moms Demand Action group who are seeking more stringent gun laws were meeting at an Arlington restaurant when they saw a group of men, women and children in the parking lot carrying a variety of long guns, from shotguns to hunting rifles.

The group stayed in the parking lot for about 10 or 15 minutes to protest the Moms Demand Action meeting, reports say, and then they left.

The incident was widely reported, as one woman inside said she was “terrified” by the fact that they “wanted to display force.” They said other restaurantgoers inside were scared as well.

“What's chilling is that their ‘counterprotest’ of our private lunch gathering was completely legal,” Jones said. “Many patrons and employees in the restaurant were surprised and frightened by what they saw.

“Should citizens who are out and about living their lives be subjected to this kind of intimidation and have that intimidation sanctioned by our laws? We don't think so.”

Grisham said the Open Carry group went by the restaurant on purpose.

“They did walk past there for the specific purpose of showing them people can walk by them with long guns and nobody gets shot,” he said. “We made sure we stayed far enough away that they shouldn’t have felt threatened.

“You can’t protect your children by getting rid of guns,” he said. “You protect your children with deadly force — if necessary.”

Arlington police responded to the incident but made no arrests.

“When we become aware of protests or demonstrations in our city, Arlington police officers closely monitor the situation for the safety of our community, the demonstrators and counterdemonstrators,” police spokeswoman Tiara Ellis Richard said. “It’s important to note that no two situations are alike; therefore our officers approach these incidents on a case-by-case basis.

“It’s important that neither officers nor community members become complacent if they observe someone in public with a weapon,” she said. “Community members should immediately call 911 and allow officers to look into each incident to determine the lawfulness of conduct.”

No debating differences

Grisham posted a note on Facebook last this week offering the group a “chance to get your ideas out in public.”

He offered to debate Shannon Watts, founder of Moms Demand Action, on “the issue of ‘gun sense’ (gun control) versus gun rights (supporting the constitution),” the post stated. “Since we are issuing the challenge, Shannon may pick anywhere in the State of Texas to hold the event and OCT will pay for the venue.

“We will also accept the Texas Chapter President of MDA if Shannon doesn't feel intelligent or confident enough to handle an open debate. OCT will NOT be open carry at the event so MDA can feel safe and secure in its ignorance and false sense of safety.”

He later withdrew the debate offer.

Change looming?

Texas lawmakers briefly visited the possibility of allowing open carry in Texas this year, when state Rep. George Lavender, R-Texarkana, filed a measure to let Texans with concealed handgun licenses openly carry their firearms, as gun owners in states including Oklahoma and Minnesota already do.

Texas and a handful of other states do not allow open carry. There are ongoing legal challenges in some other states that do.

The proposal, written and co-written by nearly two dozen House members including Reps. Giovanni Capriglione of Southlake and Matt Krause of Fort Worth, never made it out of committee.

The Legislature passed Texas’ concealed handgun law in 1995.

But new support seems to be lining up for the move, now that the Republican candidates for lieutenant governor, and Republican Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott, a gubernatorial candidate, are among those saying they support open carry in Texas.

“We want to get open carry of pistols passed,” Grisham said. “I don’t like carrying around an AR-15, an AK-47 all the time,” he said. “We want to fix the law.”

The next time the Legislature could address the issue would be January 2015. But Grisham said he hopes pro-gun Republican Gov. Rick Perry will call a special session to look at the issue before then.

Ferguson, the conservative commentator, said he wants to see Texas’ law changed.

“We are on the same team,” he said. “We just disagree on the playbook that needs to be used.

“Sometimes their protests marginalize the issue and do more harm than good in pushing open carry in Texas,” he said. “You can make your point without walking around with a semiautomatic rifle in your hands.”