Blame it on unease caused by the 2008 recession. Blame it on the election of Barack Obama, a Democrat, as president. Blame it on fears of terrorists slipping across the border. On Thursday, when the Senate State Affairs Committee took up SB 17—a measure which would legalize the open carry of handguns—its author, Craig Estes, said that the bill sought to right “an ancient wrong.” Maybe; as Estes noted, Texas has banned open carry of handguns since the 19th century.
Politically speaking, though, open carry is a recent issue. And support for open carry has grown alongside an explosion in the number of Texans seeking the license required to legally carrying a concealed handgun. Texas legalized concealed carry in 1996, with the provision that to get a CHL, individuals would have to undergo training, proficiency testing, and background checks for criminal convictions and mental health problems. Over the next dozen years, there was a slow and steady increase in the number of licenses issued by the Department of Public Safety. Even after the 2001 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, there was no rush of Texans to obtain CHLs.
But since 2008 the number of licenses issued by DPS has exploded.
As of Dec. 31, 2014, there were 825,957 licenses in Texas. Only 73,000 of them were issued between 2000 and 2007. Since 2008, however, the number of licenses grew by 65 percent –in other words, an additional 537,048 new licenses have been issued since 2008. Almost half the new licenses were issued in 2013 and 2014.
That’s worth keeping in mind as the session proceeds. In a sense, the push for open carry is related to the number of CHL holders in Texas. Compared to the total adult population of the Lone Star State, the number of CHL licenses represents just about one out of every two-dozen Texas adults. But the number of CHL holders exceeds the population of any one of the following Texas cities: Fort Worth, El Paso, Arlington, Plano, Laredo or Lubbock. It’s more than double the population of Corpus Christi, and almost the size of the population of Austin. When a group of Texans with the population of a major city agitate for a change in the law, legislators listen; that is what they were doing Thursday.
But since concealed carry has been legal since 1996, it’s not immediately obvious that the push for open carry has coincided with the explosion of the concealed carry movement. Listening to today’s testimony, I came away with the impression that the growth of concealed carry has caused the push for open carry. Alice Tripp, the legislative director of the Texas State Rifle Association, admitted to the committee that open carry is an issue of changing times and the realization that most states do not restrict open carry of licensed handgun owners. “I never thought about open carry. It was an issue that was first brought to me five or six years ago,” Tripp said. “Over the years as people had computers and they were able to find out what was going on in the other states, they tried on that model for themselves.” It makes sense, in a way. As other witnesses noted, concealed carry hasn’t led to mayhem in the streets–and as Estes noted, recent open carry laws in states like Oklahoma and Mississippi haven’t either. But why is concealed carry suddenly becoming so much more popular? That remains unclear.
The other guns bill taken up by the Senate State Affairs committee today was SB 11, by Brian Birdwell, which would authorize campus carry. That movement, nationally, has clearly been spurred by the 2007 massacre of 32 students on the Virginia Tech campus. A number of witnesses before the committee argued that a licensed handgun holder could have saved lives in that situation, especially considering that the killer, in that case, locked the doors before he began shooting, to keep police out. If a student at Virginia Tech had been armed, “maybe the body count would not have been as high,” said Parnell McLennan, the McLennan County Sheriff, testifying for the bill. But Colin Goddard, who was in his French class at Virginia Tech when he was shot in the knee, shoulder, and twice in the hips, told the committee there is no way to say someone in the classroom could have actually stopped the shooter. “Please, do not use the shooting as justification for a bill like this,” said Goddard, who is now an advocate for Mayors Against Illegal Guns in Washington, D.C.
Several witnesses in favor of SB 11 noted a more recent issue on college campuses, and argued that campus carry would help young women protect themselves from sexual assault. And since this is Texas, Charles Whitman’s 1966 sniper rampage from the University of Texas Tower, which resulted in 16 deaths, also came up repeatedly. Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, talked of being pinned down by Whitman near the Student Union, while Sen. Charles Schwertner, R-Georgetown, said his father as a student climbed into a church bell tower to fire his deer rifle at Whitman.
The day was filled with testimony in which many witnesses had personal faith in the good or ill of handguns, and of the more than 100 people who testified, few were somewhere in the middle. One exception was Houston Deputy Chief Don McKinney; he was neutral on Senate Bill 17, the legislation to allow open carry by CHL holders, but asked the committee to increase CHL training and to requiring specific holsters to lessen the odds of a criminal taking a handgun from a licensed owner. Statistics from the Officer Down Foundation, he said, show 57 policemen were murdered with their own handguns between 2000-2014. “I’m not so concerned about the licensee having a weapon but the person behind them,” McKinney said. Committee Chair Joan Huffman, a Republican from Houston and former criminal district judge, responded by telling a brief story about when someone took a firearm from a bailiff. “It happens quickly, and I guarantee it’s no fun,” she said.
Regardless, by the end of the day, both bills sailed out of committee on a party line vote, and even the two who opposed the legislation–Zaffirini and Rodney Ellis, the only Democrats on the committee–admitted there was little possibility of keeping the two bills in question from passing the Senate. Notably, the committee has yet to take up any bills related to so-called “constitutional carry,” under which anyone who can legally own a handgun can carry it in public without a state permit. That did not keep proponents of unlicensed carry from testifying that the CHL bills should be amended to broaden to remove state restrictions on handguns.