Lawmakers wrestling with gun rights

Someone should give Kory Watkins a lesson in public relations.

The Tarrant County gun rights advocate has been trying to build support for the open carry of handguns in Texas, organizing rallies of like-minded, rifle-toting people and handing out copies of the Constitution to motorists at intersections in Arlington.

But his latest stunt, a video posted on social media in which he essentially accused legislators who oppose open carry of treason — a crime “punishable by death” — is both scary and absurd.

Watkins has become the face of the movement, and his behavior has given Texans reason to oppose what he wants.

But before we go accusing all open-carry proponents of radical zealotry, some context is important.

The Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence says Texas is one of only six states, including California and New York, plus the District of Columbia, that completely restrict the open carry of handguns in public. In fact, 31 states allow open carry without licenses; 13 permit the practice with a special license.

So to say that only in Texas would there be a movement to legalize such an activity clearly isn’t right. Still, that doesn’t necessarily mean Texas must change its law.

Open-carry legislation introduced by state Rep. Dan Flynn, R-Canton, would essentially expand current concealed handgun license policy to allow license holders — those who are 21 and older, have taken the necessary training classes, passed a background check and have no felony convictions or A or B misdemeanor convictions in the last five years — to carry handguns openly or concealed.

Proponents of open carry argue that the visible display of a holstered weapon enhances safety and serves as a deterrent.

Opponents say it serves only to intimidate and makes gun carriers targets.

Both arguments are exaggerations.

But given the strong reactions of some Arlington residents to open-carry protestors displaying long guns and rifles (which is legal) on city streets, it’s clear that many Texans find the public display of arms discomfiting. That is worth some thoughtful consideration.

While the cause of public comfort shouldn’t necessarily drive policy, particularly if the price is to infringe on the rights of others, we’ve yet to hear a convincing argument that open carry, as introduced in Flynn’s bill, is somehow more constitutional than the state’s existing concealed-carry policies.

So, what is the compelling reason to change the law?

More worrisome is a bill introduced by Rep. Jonathan Stickland, R-Bedford. Stickland advocates “constitutional carry,” which means anyone legally able to purchase a gun could carry it openly or concealed without a permit.

Allowing licensed and trained gun owners to carry weapons in public may be disconcerting to some, but eliminating licensing and training requirements should be a terrifying prospect for all.

Permitting and safety procedures should be strengthened, not weakened. Lawmakers should strongly oppose Stickland’s bill.

Finally, there’s the issue of campus carry, which would allow concealed handgun license holders to carry handguns into buildings on public university campuses. Private universities could continue to prohibit such weapons. The legislation also allows universities to establish regulations for handgun storage in dormitories and on campus property.

Some people fear introducing weapons into a highly stressful college environment. Others worry that the guns would complicate the jobs of university police. But those issues are not exclusive to campus life, so it’s difficult to defend the argument that public campuses deserve a special carve-out from state law.

Public and private universities both should be able to determine whether concealed handguns are permitted on campus. More than 20 states have such laws in place, and campus-carry legislation that failed in 2013 would have included such a provision. The current proposal does not.

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick has predicted that campus carry will pass. He was initially less certain about open carry legislation but has recanted his public doubts.

Gov. Greg Abbott seems more confident. He said during a radio interview this week that “the votes probably are there for open carry.” Abbott supports licensed open carry, not constitutional open carry.

These debates are in their early stages. Lawmakers should hear from constituents.