Donald Dahl, who’s been paying National Rifle Association dues since 1967, shuffled through the rotunda away from the House chamber at the Texas Capitol on April 15. That day was a long time coming for the mechanic and self-described “heavy-duty activist” from Round Rock, the Austin suburb. He had spent fifteen years hounding state lawmakers to expand gun rights. Like many grassroots Second Amendment enthusiasts, he couldn’t understand why Texas wasn’t one of the eighteen states that allowed citizens to carry a gun without a license or training. But finally, after years of campaigning on behalf of challengers to “wishy-washy” Republicans who never seemed to take up his cause, Dahl was relieved when the Texas House passed “permitless carry” on a 84–56 vote.
Though the debate had been contentious—featuring an ongoing argument about white supremacy and a tense confrontation when Democratic representative Rafael Anchia called GOP representative Matt Schaefer a coward for refusing to answer a question—just one Republican voted against permitless carry. Seven Democrats, largely from South Texas, had voted in favor. Dahl told me that constitutional carry, the term gun rights activists use for permitless carry, would finally restore rights the “g–damn useless Democrats [had taken] away after the Civil War.” (Never mind that it was Republicans who governed Texas for more than a decade after that war.)
But just four days later, it seemed that Republicans would stand in the way of the permitless carry bill becoming law. Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick, who has twisted enough arms this session to get at least 25 hot-button conservative priorities passed, said early last week he probably couldn’t advance the legislation. A permitless carry bill had sat motionless for weeks in the Senate State Affairs Committee. Patrick said if he had the votes he’d advance the bill, but cautioned that “at this point, we don’t have the votes on the floor to pass it.”
Then on Friday, when permitless carry seemed all but dead in the chamber, Patrick created the Special Committee on Constitutional Issues, which will hear the House’s bill Thursday. But the legislation concerns some senators in Patrick’s party. Kel Seliger, a Republican from Amarillo who believes the current permit system works just fine, said there are “a lot of folks in the Senate who are not altogether comfortable” with the bill, although he wouldn’t say who.
Other legislators and lobbyists say a vote could spell trouble for a few members of the Republican caucus in the Senate, particularly those in more moderate districts who narrowly won their last elections. (Angela Paxton from McKinney won in 2018 by fewer than three percentage points; Joan Huffman, of Houston, by fewer than five.) Gun rights motivate a vocal contingent of GOP primary voters whom Republican Senators have to court, but permitless carry is unpopular among the populace at large: just 26 percent of Texans and 27 percent of Texas Republicans support it, according to an April poll by the University of Texas at Tyler and the Dallas Morning News. A vote on the bill could put some senators in a tough position. “It could force Republican members who are in moderate districts to take a vote in order to survive the primary that could disadvantage them in the general election,” said Senator Nathan Johnson, a Democrat from Dallas.
A few senators and lobbyists say the committee Patrick created might amount to little more than political theater, allowing Republicans to score pro-gun talking points in legislative hearings with no real intention of having the bill come to a vote before the full Senate. “There are many ways to kill a bill without leaving any fingerprints,” one Democratic senator told me privately, suggesting the Senate legislation would not advance. But others see the special committee as a move to buy time to make hesitant members more comfortable with the bill before it comes to the floor.
Patrick often forces his caucus to take contentious votes—as in 2017 with the bathroom bill, which aimed to appease those who fear transgender Texans. Patrick, along with Governor Greg Abbott, often uses such issues to boost his conservative credentials while letting the Speaker of the House take heat for failing to advance the bills (as Joe Straus did in 2017). Now Patrick finds his position reversed: Speaker Dade Phelan has received applause from the right and forced Patrick into a tough decision. What has changed for the dynamics to be flipped?
Texas lawmakers have spent years loosening gun restrictions. The Lege passed eight new gun laws in 2019, banning property owners’ associations and landlords from barring the storage or carrying of firearms on their properties, and allowing Texans to carry handguns without a license during a state of disaster. But passage of permitless carry, the holy grail of Second Amendment activists, has been unachievable. Two sessions ago, a permitless carry bill received a hearing but never landed on the House floor. In the last legislative session, after a bill was filed, tensions flared when an activist with Texas Gun Rights, a Second Amendment advocacy group, trolled then–House Speaker Dennis Bonnen by visiting his home and those of his two top lieutenants. The activist scared Bonnen’s wife, and the Speaker called the tactic “gutless” and had an ugly confrontation with Chris McNutt, the organization’s executive director, before a large audience at a Republican fund-raising dinner. The drama killed any chance of the bill passing; its sponsor, former representative Jonathan Stickland, dropped the legislation.
But 2021 offered House Republicans new freedom to pursue such legislation. After worrying they might cede control of the House to Democrats in the 2020 election and then holding onto it, many Republicans now fear the prospect of a primary challenge more than a general-election campaign against a candidate from the other party. Republicans feel liberated to keep each leg of the old GOP stool sturdy: low spending, low taxes, and strong gun rights. Add the pandemic, during which gun and ammunition sales reached a record high, and the House GOP saw a new opportunity for permitless carry.
Personnel changes in the House have also made a key difference. Phelan, in his first session as Speaker, is further right on guns than were Bonnen and his predecessor, Joe Straus. Phelan sponsored permitless carry legislation in 2015 and this year sent the measure to a friendly committee that was likely to advance the bill to the floor. The bill’s sponsor is also more adept than Stickland, whose coarseness drew the ire of Democrats and Republicans alike. Stickland opted against running for reelection, and now Tyler Republican Matt Schaefer, a conservative with more self-control, is carrying the bill.
Democrats can’t help but feel whiplash over the House’s quick ideological turn. “Just a few years ago, permitless carry was thought to be a bridge too far,” said Anchia in an impassioned speech against the bill on the House floor. He recalled walking up and down the aisle of the House in years past to hear Texas legislators of both parties say “no way” to eliminating gun permits. He would later tell me that a constant need to worry about primaries has pushed Republicans to extremes. “Every session, my Republican colleagues feel like they need a gun vote to keep proving to the gun lobby that they’re on their side,” Anchia told me. “At some point, you just run out of sane votes to take. They look around and say, look, there’s no more meat left on the bone, the sanity bone.”
But the state of affairs in the Senate is different. Patrick, compared with Phelan, has been relatively enigmatic on guns. After a mass shooting at a church in Sutherland Springs in 2017, Patrick sought to ensure Texans could carry firearms in places of worship, and after a shooting at Santa Fe High School in 2018, he dismissed a proposed “red flag” law that would strip guns from those identified as a danger to themselves or others. But after a string of mass shootings in Texas in 2019, including ones in El Paso and Odessa that together killed thirty Texans, the lieutenant governor offered to “take an arrow” from the NRA and supported background checks for private gun sales (although he hasn’t pushed for such a bill this session). The Texas Capitol also requires most visitors to pass through metal detectors, in part because of an incident in which a Houstonian carried a gun without a permit into the lieutenant governor’s Senate office in 2010, left the Capitol, and then fired it outside. (Another reason, critics say, is that some lawmakers are willing to expose their constituents to greater risks of gun violence but don’t wish to face those risks themselves.)
Patrick’s list of thirty legislative priorities for 2021 included pro-gun bills that would protect gun shops and other firearms businesses from forced shutdowns during a state of emergency and bar the state from doing business with companies that oppose the gun industry. But a potential bid for reelection in 2022 might weigh heavily in his calculus on permitless carry. “You put yourself at risk for over a year of someone exploiting constitutional carry for some nefarious reason, whether murder or robbery,” said Mark Jones, a political scientist at Rice University.
Another complicating factor for Patrick is that, in the wake of calls from some Democrats to “defund the police,” he’s positioned himself as a strong supporter of law enforcement. In September, Patrick joined Abbott at a “Back the Blue” press conference, where he signed a pledge vowing to support measures that would punish cities that reduce their police budgets. Now a litany of police groups, including the Dallas Police Association, Houston Police Officers’ Union, and Texas Police Chiefs Association, have opposed permitless carry, arguing that it will put them at greater risk and likely lead to more gun accidents.
Patrick’s office did not respond to a request for an interview about the status of the bill in the Senate. Abbott dodged a question about the House bill last week, saying he was more concerned with emergency items on this year’s legislative agenda, including penalizing cities that reduce spending on police. But on Tuesday he said on a Fort Worth radio station that he supported permitless carry .
I asked Dahl what he thought of Patrick after the lieutenant governor indicated he didn’t have the votes to pass permitless carry. “He’s a fake,” Dahl said. Later he told me he’s not totally swayed by Patrick’s creation of a special committee to vet the bill. Dahl told me that if permitless carry doesn’t pass the Senate, the Gun Owners of America, NRA, and Texas State Rifle Association “will back whoever primaries Patrick.” After chastising the lieutenant governor, Dahl walked away from me, the words “Victory or Death” spanning the back of his shirt in boldface letters above the hashtag “#nocompromise.”
Correction: The original version of this story misstated that Senator Nathan Johnson is from Fort Worth. In fact, he is very much from Dallas, Fort Worth’s bitter enemy.