Pistol Pushers

How gun rights activists turned the once obscure issue of open carry into the talk of Texas politics—and drove the Lege to reach for the panic button.  

April 2015By Comments

Photo Illustration by Darren Braun

Among the Texans who gathered in Austin for the first day of the Eighty-fourth Legislature, on January 13, were a number of activists calling for an end to the state’s long-standing ban on openly carrying handguns. Their cause was, not long ago, a relatively obscure one. During the previous session, in 2013, there had been barely any discussion of open carry. Since then, however, the issue had rapidly gained traction. Both Greg Abbott and Dan Patrick, soon to be sworn in as governor and lieutenant governor, respectively, had announced their support for open carry during the 2014 election. Jonathan Stickland, a tea party representative from Bedford, had already filed an open carry bill, and other lawmakers were preparing their own versions. Open carry seemed likely to pass, but activists weren’t leaving anything to chance. They had come to the Texas Capitol on opening day to make sure their presence was felt. They succeeded—and then some.

Volunteers with the grassroots group Open Carry Texas had helped organize a rally that morning.* Among the speakers was Stickland, who announced that Lone Star Gun Rights had gathered roughly 15,000 signatures in support of his bill. Meanwhile, activists from Come and Take It Texas were manufacturing guns on the south lawn, using a special 3-D printer named the Ghost Gunner, which had been invented by one of their supporters. And then there were the unforgettable antics of Kory Watkins.

The 31-year-old doesn’t necessarily strike an imposing figure. He has a string-bean physique and a thick brush of black hair that he often hides under a fedora. Though a relative newcomer to grassroots political activism, he’s already shown a talent for causing a ruckus as the leader of Open Carry Tarrant County, which has a habit of startling people in Dallas–Fort Worth by turning up at public places like Target and Home Depot with AK-47s and various other serious weaponry. Watkins has also engaged in more mundane methods of politicking. He serves as a Republican precinct chair, and he had block-walked for tea party candidates Konni Burton and Don Huffines, who would be sworn in to the Texas Senate that day. But his appetite for confrontational advocacy is evidenced on his well-trafficked Facebook page, which is adorned with photos from numerous gun rights protests and is topped with the slogan “Speak the Truth.”

That morning he and other Open Carry Tarrant County activists were prowling the Capitol Extension, an underground warren of offices, asking legislators to support Stickland’s bill. They were, of course, well armed. In the office of Poncho Nevárez, a Democratic representative from Eagle Pass, their efforts went awry. Nevárez patiently listened to their arguments but stated that he didn’t want to vote for the bill and refused to reconsider, even when one member accused him of being “a tyrant to the Constitution” and another warned him about the consequences of his actions: “You won’t be here very long.” At that point, Nevárez invited the activists to leave his office. “It’s the people’s office,” one harrumphed. They shuffled out begrudgingly, but only after Nevárez, having repeatedly asked them to leave, took a few steps toward the door, saying that he was going to summon a state trooper from down the hall. Once back in the corridor, Watkins jammed his foot in the door to keep the representative from closing it. When a bystander pointed out that Open Carry Tarrant County wasn’t being very nice, Watkins shot back, “I’ll show you mean.”

Watkins had recorded the encounter and posted the video, which quickly went viral. Many people who watched it were appalled. Nevárez had remained calm, but he had been singled out for no apparent reason and was visibly outnumbered and apparently unarmed. Where Open Carry Tarrant County had seen tyranny and condescension, others saw an even-tempered public official being cornered and threatened by crazy people—crazy people with guns.

Even other open carry activists were shocked by Watkins’s behavior. C. J. Grisham, of Open Carry Texas, told the Houston Chronicle’s Lauren McGaughy that he had witnessed the encounter, or part of it at least. “I had to leave in disgust,” he said. The next day, the House adopted a rule allowing representatives to install panic buttons in their offices, a safety measure that hadn’t even crossed anyone’s mind the day before. Later, Grisham told me that he didn’t necessarily disagree with Open Carry Tarrant County’s arguments: “Poncho Nevárez is a tyrant to the Constitution. I’ll say that.” But he thought Watkins’s tactics were inappropriate and strategically unwise. Jerry Patterson, the former land commissioner and a gun rights advocate who lost to Patrick in the GOP primary for lieutenant governor, chided Open Carry Tarrant County, saying its actions had endangered the passage of an open carry bill.

On January 27, in an interview with the Texas Tribune, Patrick seemed to downplay open carry. As lieutenant governor, he said, he was making an effort to focus on priorities such as expanding school choice. “Second Amendment rights are very important,” he said. “But open carry does not reach to the level of prioritizing at this point.” Beyond that, he added, he wasn’t sure it had enough support to pass.

The video of Patrick’s comments quickly went viral too. For certain conservatives, it was a betrayal. The backlash was narrow but ferocious. Hundreds of open carry supporters took to Patrick’s Facebook page. In outrage and sorrow, they reminded the new lieutenant governor of a few things: That open carry was part of the state Republican party’s platform. That Patrick—who had become the Republican nominee for lieutenant governor by campaigning to the right of his three opponents and who had professed during the campaign to be “Christian first, conservative second, and Republican third”—had promised to “fight” for open carry. And that they, the grass roots, had elected him.

Patrick was taken aback. “Its [sic] very important to pass along with several other gun bills we will pass,” he wrote late that night in reply to one Facebook commenter. But compared with border security, property tax relief, business tax cuts, transportation, and education, he continued, “it is not in the top 3 or 4 issues for the vast majority of Texans.” A reasonable person would have been hard-pressed to disagree. Those issues were, moreover, the ones that Patrick had cited as priorities during his campaign. But the grass roots was unmoved.

Watkins, for his part, had announced on Facebook that he would return to Austin and pay a visit to Patrick. “Get the panic buttons ready!” he added. Even for an activist, Watkins’s antics were unusually aggressive, bordering on threatening. But two days later, on January 29, Watkins received a warm welcome from Patrick, perhaps the most powerful elected official in Texas. Watkins posted a selfie taken inside the lieutenant governor’s office, where he was meeting with senior members of Patrick’s staff.

Within days, Patrick reversed himself. He announced that he wanted the Senate State Affairs Committee to hold a hearing on a bill that would legalize open carry. The issue had suddenly leapfrogged to the top of the lieutenant governor’s legislative agenda; it would be among the first bills of the session heard in committee. Thanks to angry Facebook commenters and one brazen activist, open carry’s fortunes had dramatically improved, from being a low priority to placed on the legislative fast track.

A couple of days later, Watkins posted another video, a sort of general response to his many critics, in which he compared himself to Rosa Parks and offered a warning, apparently directed at any other legislators wavering on open carry: “Going against the Constitution is treason. And that, my friend, is punishable by death.”

On February 12, the day of the open carry hearing, I ran into Watkins in a hallway in the Capitol Extension. He had left his fedora and his arsenal behind on this occasion and was wearing a slim black suit and an innocent expression. He told me he had never cared much about politics growing up. His interest was sparked by the liberty movement that has been slowly simmering in the years since Ron Paul’s quixotic presidential campaigns, which resonated with his beliefs that the government has infringed on citizens’ rights, including on issues such as gay marriage and, especially, police abuse. But when I referred to him as a libertarian, Watkins corrected me; his views might reflect that influence, but he is a Republican precinct chair.

Interestingly, perhaps, it wasn’t gun rights that had ignited Watkins’s advocacy; he was already a grassroots political activist before he got involved with the open carry movement. And he seemed puzzled by the widespread opposition to open carry. “We’ve been walking around with AK-47s for two years!” This is, as it happens, one of the reasons many Texans are wary of the movement. But Open Carry Tarrant County isn’t alone. Other groups have used the tactic of openly carrying long guns in public for the rationale that Watkins implied: to illustrate the silliness of Texas’s current laws, which allow anyone to carry long guns, like AK-47s, in public without a license but require that handguns be carefully hidden and the carrier be granted permission.

Similarly, Watkins disagreed with my suggestion that his video of the encounter with Nevárez might turn anyone against Stickland’s bill. He did, however, concede that the video might have harmed open carry’s political prospects. Certain legislators, he thought, would probably try to use him as a scapegoat to vote against the measure, which they were opposed to anyway. His mouth drew into a thin, determined frown.

Then Watkins said something strange. He was waiting for his turn to testify before the committee, which was hearing two gun bills. One of the bills, authored by Granbury Republican Brian Birdwell, would permit guns on the campuses of Texas’s public colleges and universities. The other, by Republican Craig Estes, of Wichita Falls, would allow the open carrying of handguns—with a license. On the latter bill, Watkins’s testimony would be neutral. He wouldn’t speak against it, he said, but he certainly wasn’t for it.

That’s because the version of open carry in the bill isn’t what Watkins and other activists really want. This brings us to a source of incredible confusion that has warped the entire debate. In Texas, at least, the “open carry” movement encompasses two distinct views about guns. Both of these ideas have been formally proposed this session, and the bills in question seem similar enough. Either would end the open carry ban. Neither, probably, would lead to the end of civilization as we know it. Most open carry advocates prefer one version, but many support both. At a conceptual level, though, the proposals diverge profoundly. One is based on Texas’s current regulations about how handguns can be carried. The other is based on the premise that states shouldn’t have such regulations at all. The first version, licensed open carry, is straightforward. Since 1996, Texans have been allowed to carry concealed handguns if they acquire a license and stay away from places like schools or bars. Under licensed open carry, they would have the option of carrying a gun in a holster on the outside of their clothes. The other version of open carry is sometimes called constitutional carry. It would allow Texans to carry open or concealed handguns without obtaining a license—in other words, without paying a fee, completing any training, or submitting to a background check.

Licensed open carry is already legal in most states. Constitutional carry, historically, was legal only in Vermont. In recent years, however, laws have been proposed in a number of states—and passed in several—by advocates who believe that Americans shouldn’t need the government’s permission to carry a gun. The Second Amendment, they argue, is the license.

The conflation of the two concepts in the Lege is an accident of history related to “an ancient wrong,” as Estes put it at the February 12 hearing while laying out his open carry bill. In the Republic of Texas, people were allowed to do whatever they wanted with guns, more or less. The state’s Reconstruction-era government later banned the carrying of handguns—though not rifles—and the restriction remained in place for more than a century, until the national right-to-carry movement began in the eighties. Texas’s concealed carry law is not anomalous: a number of states allow concealed and open carry of handguns, subject to a criminal background check and other permitting requirements. But in Texas the result was a latent quirk in the state’s gun laws: there are six states that ban the open carrying of handguns; Texas is one of the few that concurrently allows open carry of assault weapons.

Odd as that contradiction may be, it never really became an issue until open carry activists made it one in the past two years. And when they did, people were naturally disposed to view open carry laws as related to the concept of concealed carry. That explains why open carry gained traction so rapidly. There were dire predictions prior to the passage of concealed carry that the law would facilitate violent crime, but it hasn’t. As of 2015, only about 825,000 concealed handgun licenses (CHLs) were active (in a state of 27 million); most Texans are not, in fact, walking around with guns. Those who do are apparently not predisposed to mayhem. One eight-year study found that CHL holders were less likely to commit a crime than people without the license. Gun laws aside, the rate of violent crime has declined in most states, including Texas, over the past twenty years. Plenty of Texans probably agree with former governor Rick Perry, who recently said that he didn’t see a need for open carry, since we already have concealed carry. But they could nonetheless agree with the argument that Abbott offered during his gubernatorial campaign, which can be paraphrased as follows: since concealed carry is legal, the ban on open carry is basically a mandate about clothes, which is silly.

Even Wendy Davis, during her run for governor in 2014, announced her support for open carry. At the time, it seemed like a shameless pander, and after the election, she revealed that she had reconsidered. But if it was a pander, it was a telling one: in Texas, licensed open carry seems like an intuitive concept and an easy sell. Meanwhile, many people overlook the other—much more radical—version of open carry that would remove nearly all restrictions. Constitutional carry advocates contend that such restrictions are burdensome and not particularly useful. For instance, under Texas law people convicted of felonies and even some misdemeanors can’t hold concealed carry licenses. “Martha Stewart is a felon,” Grisham observed, arguing that the criminal background check provision in Texas’s concealed carry law is overly broad.**Cost may be another barrier. Stickland, whose bill would legalize constitutional carry, noted that while he could afford the fee, that might not be true for a poor person, and if so, that person’s right to self-defense would be restricted. Brandon Creighton, a Republican senator from The Woodlands, suggested that the public safety risks of constitutional carry were overstated. “It’s legal to ride a horse to the Wells Fargo in Vermont, but most people don’t.”

These arguments are not unreasonable, but they are also, for some activists, beside the point. Ultimately, the argument for constitutional carry is a matter of principle. The Second Amendment is explicit and affirmative about the right to keep and bear arms and doesn’t include any asterisks about CHL training or mental health screening. The constitutional carry movement has an inherently antiauthoritarian slant and, in practice, is noticeably egalitarian. That helps explain why open carry activists have repeatedly clashed with more-powerful gun rights groups, including the National Rifle Association, and why they have largely avoided the racial undercurrents that are sometimes associated with gun rights causes. They are more concerned about government power than crime. Watkins, when not harassing the Lege, can sometimes be found monitoring police, and decrying Islamophobia and other forms of bigotry.

At the same time, constitutional carry is wildly unpopular. A recent University of Texas/Texas Tribune poll found that only 10 percent of Texans support it. The activists were frightening people who couldn’t see their perspective but could certainly see their AK-47s.

Though passage of open carry seemed like a fait accompli at the beginning of the session, a conundrum had emerged within just a few weeks. The issue had become less palatable as a result of its proponents’ behavior, and for some Republicans, passing open carry under such circumstances would set a worrisome precedent. In early February House Speaker Joe Straus, in an appearance at the University of Texas, said that he doubted there would be enough votes to pass the open carry bill that the activists were demanding. He pointed to Watkins as the culprit. “House members are not going to be bullied.” But Republicans who had promised to fight for open carry had no choice but to do so, unless they were willing to risk a backlash among the conservative grass roots.

Ironically, this particular conundrum had an easy resolution because of the widespread confusion over the actual meaning of open carry. Plenty of Republicans had made campaign promises about open carry; few had made specific promises about constitutional carry and few had been asked. For example, in retrospect, Abbott in his campaign was clearly talking about licensed open carry. Only later, after he’d been elected, was he asked to clarify. At that point, he said that he would sign either version of open carry and autographed a copy of Stickland’s constitutional carry bill as a show of solidarity.

Republicans in the Lege would have been in a trickier position, except for the fact that licensed open carry still counts as open carry. Some supporters, in fact, would argue that licensed open carry was the more important of the two. Creighton was among the five senators who signed on to constitutional carry, but he told me that licensed open carry would still extend Second Amendment rights because licenses issued in Texas would be recognized in other states. The Lege could enact open carry by passing Estes’s bill, and it could simultaneously send a message to troublemakers like Watkins by ignoring Stickland’s. Even as early as February, Stickland figured his constitutional carry bill was doomed. He was just hoping for a vote on it and was frustrated that the House leadership was trying to prevent him from having even that. Surprisingly, constitutional carry was seemingly scuttled in the Senate too, which is more conservative than it was in 2013.

And, of course, there was the new lieutenant governor. By the time he sat down with the Texas Tribune, one week after his inauguration, Patrick had fulfilled three campaign promises to tea party activists: the Senate scrapped a long-standing tradition under which two thirds of the members present would have to agree to hear a bill on the floor. Patrick had also whittled the number of Democrats chairing committees; there had been six Democratic chairs in the 2013 session, and there were now just two. And he announced the formation of his Grassroots Advisory Council, to give the people a voice in the lieutenant governor’s office—but not just any people: tea party activists dominate the group.

Gun rights advocates had good reason to trust Patrick. As a bomb-throwing state senator, he had worked to expand Second Amendment rights in a number of ways. In 2007, as a freshman, he co-authored the bill that established Texas’s “castle” doctrine, the state’s version of “stand your ground.” In 2013, after the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary, in Connecticut, which left twenty children dead, he authored a bill that would have permitted local school boards to allow certain personnel to carry concealed handguns on school premises and provided funding for their training. (The bill passed the Legislature but was quietly vetoed by Rick Perry, who cited cost concerns.) In 2009, 2011, and 2013, Patrick co-authored bills that would have allowed campus carry, a top priority among national gun rights groups in the wake of the mass shooting at Virginia Tech, in April 2007, and one that remains controversial.

Even after Patrick made the comments that elicited the epic backlash, there was no reason to doubt his support for open carry. All he had said was that it wasn’t a top priority and that he wasn’t sure it had the votes to pass. Moreover, Patrick should have felt politically secure: the next Republican primary lay more than three years away, on the far side of another legislative session. And besides, most ardent gun people had probably voted for Patterson in the 2014 lieutenant governor primary, and Patrick had won anyway.

Despite all that, Patrick reacted quickly to the activists, and before long the Senate State Affairs Committee was holding its hearing on the two gun bills. Patrick had, in fact, asked the committee’s chair, Houston Republican Joan Huffman, to fast-track a total of three bills; he had wanted her to also hear the Senate counterpart to Stickland’s constitutional carry bill, which Huffman had left off the agenda. The explanation was a simple one: Huffman had never indicated any support for constitutional carry. A former prosecutor and judge, she was apparently against it, as are many members of the criminal justice system and law enforcement groups.

Huffman’s opposition would seem to be a significant barrier, but constitutional carry activists will undoubtedly continue to make their case. Unlike Patrick, Huffman wasn’t being held hostage. Patrick would do what the base asked; a campaign promise is a campaign promise, and he, more than any other official in Texas, had made a practice of crucifying Republicans who disappointed the base, regardless of how marginal the issue. There was some irony that Patrick was now on the receiving end of such treatment. He and other Republicans should be careful, because the political dynamics that led to the open carry furor aren’t going away.

In the end this saga isn’t really about guns. Even if licensed open carry passes, the reality is that most Texans’ lives will be unaffected.

More alarming is what this year’s gun debate reveals about the state of politics in Texas, in which general elections are foregone conclusions, the only contests that matter are Republican primaries, and the path to victory lies in running as far right as possible. Under those conditions, a small subset of conservatives can hijack the political debate and many feel entitled to do so. That’s how a once obscure issue like open carry became a top priority for the government of Texas and for the 27 million people it supposedly serves. It could easily happen again, on guns or anything else. And next time, it may not end well.

Editor’s note: Though C.J. Grisham, the head of Open Carry Texas, attended the January 13 rally at the Capitol and distributed petitions in support of Stickland’s bill, he contends that he played no role in organizing the event.

Correction: Due to an editing error, an earlier version of this story incorrectly reported two details of Kory Watkins’s 2000 conviction for theft. The incident occurred in North Richland Hills, not Mansfield. We also incorrectly stated that the case might make him ineligible for a concealed handgun license. The misdemeanor conviction disqualified him for the next five years, but it no longer has any bearing on his eligibility for a concealed handgun license. We deeply regret the errors.

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