Texas lawmakers move to drop most handgun licensing requirements
AUSTIN, TEXAS (NYTIMES) – More than 1 million people in Texas have permits to carry handguns. People often head into grocery stores, barber shops, even college campuses carrying guns for protection.
In 2019, when a man in a trench coat opened fire with a shotgun in a suburban church outside of Fort Worth, more than half a dozen people who had gathered for the service responded by drawing their own firearms.
Such scenes have been a point of pride in a state that has long seen itself as a model of responsible gun ownership. Guns have been allowed, even encouraged, but the state has had regulations requiring licensing, training and a demonstration of proficiency.
Now, within days, Governor Greg Abbott is expected to sign a wide-ranging law that will throw much of that regulation out the window, allowing virtually anyone over the age of 21 to carry a handgun, no permit required.
The landmark bill would make Texas – which has three of the nation’s 10 biggest cities – the largest among 20 other states to adopt a “constitutional carry” law that basically eliminates most restrictions on the ability to carry handguns.
Gun rights advocates say the adoption of so far-reaching a law in Texas, long considered a bellwether of gun rights legislation, could encourage similar conservative legislation in other states.
Critics, including some senior law enforcement officers, call the new legislation a dangerous retreat from gun control amid a recent surge in gun violence, particularly in a state with a long and painfully recent history of mass shootings.
The new legislation was meant to “protect the right of law-abiding Texans to carry a handgun as they exercise their God-given right to self-defence and the defence of their families,” said Mr Charles Schwertner, the Republican state senator who sponsored the bill, which cleared the Senate on Monday (May 24).
Mr Abbott described the bill on Twitter as “the strongest Second Amendment legislation in Texas history,” and was expected to sign the measure within days, as soon as it could be slotted into his schedule, said his press secretary Renae Eze.
Texas already has some of the least-restrictive gun laws in the nation: Residents have long been able to carry rifles in public without a permit, for example, and few states have gone as far as Texas in allowing guns on college campuses, a law the state passed in 2015.
But it maintained certain strict licensing standards for handguns, including requirements for a four- to six-hour training course, a written exam and a shooting proficiency demonstration, all of which will be eliminated if the governor signs the new legislation into law.
“People who had never held a gun in their lives would be legally authorised to carry those guns almost everywhere,” said Mr Ari Freilich, a state policy director with the Giffords Law Centre to Prevent Gun Violence.
The new legislation essentially extends the permissions available to carriers of rifles to handguns. It also removes the requirement that handguns be kept in a belt or a shoulder harness, but they must be in a holster.
People with criminal histories that would bar them from owning a handgun under federal law would still be barred from carrying a weapon. And the measure requires the Texas Department of Public Safety to offer a free online course on gun safety.
Versions of such a law had been proposed periodically over the last decade but had not garnered much support, and the idea of “constitutional carry” was largely dismissed as a remote dream of the far right. But the 2020 election changed all that, several analysts said, as the Republican Party in the state shifted further right and moderate legislators feared being outflanked by hard-core conservatives.
There have not been signs of strong public support for a substantial easing of gun licensing requirements. In a recent poll conducted by the University of Texas and The Texas Tribune, nearly 60 per cent of voters said adults should not be allowed to carry a gun without a permit or licence.
The measure passed over the objections of numerous senior law enforcement officers who warned that removing restrictions on carrying handguns would impede their efforts to quell gun violence.
Handguns have long been a central component of violent crime in urban American, and Texas has three of the country’s largest cities, Houston, San Antonio and Dallas.
The number of murders spiked in major Texas cities in 2020: There were more than 397 deaths in Houston, up from 289 the year before; Dallas had 245 deaths, up from 199; and Fort Worth saw deaths through November climb to 102 from 62, according to an independent tally of police statistics.
Mr Douglas Griffith, president of the Houston Police Officers’ Union, said the number of guns owned by Texans was not the concern.
“Honestly, we’re in Texas – everybody and their brother has a gun,” Mr Griffith said.
But he said eliminating the training required under existing law was inadvisable.
“Now you are going to have a bunch of untrained individuals out there,” he said. “That makes me fearful for our community.”
Mr Ed Gonzalez, the sheriff in Harris County, the most populous region of the state, warned that the new rules could return the state to the days of the wild West.
“Permitless carry does not make our community safer,” said Mr Gonzalez, who has been nominated by President Joe Biden to head Immigration and Customs Enforcement. “Instead it increases the odds of deadly confrontation and puts the lives of first responders at even greater risk.”
One of the state’s Republican US senators, Mr Ted Cruz, praised the legislation.
“I applaud Texas legislators for passing this landmark legislation to make constitutional carry a reality and to protect the right of law-abiding citizens,” he said on Twitter.
Other gun rights advocates said they believed that Texas was enshrining into law a principle they considered fundamental to the Second Amendment.
“You don’t have to beg the government for a permission slip to exercise a fundamental right,” said C.J. Grisham, who has been pushing for an easing of restrictions on carrying handguns since founding Open Carry Texas in 2013.
But Mr Ed Scruggs of Texas Gun Sense said the new legislation had reversed a long tradition of Texas holding itself up as a model of responsible gun laws.
“Now it seems like there is not anything off limits,” he said.
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