Gun violence and Second Amendment rights have been banner issues as the U.S. grapples with our title as the only developed nation with a such a large (and ever increasing) number of mass shootings. Although the federal government is at a standstill on how to move forward, Texas took it upon itself to pass new open carry and campus carry laws in June.
There was vocal, but ultimately ineffective, opposition to the laws as Democrats tried to stop the passage of Senate Bill 17, which allows for holstered open carry of handguns, and Senate Bill 11 the bill that OKs concealed handguns on the campuses of public universities. Arguments about the possible confusion and dangers of open carry were refuted with comparisons to other states including Oklahoma, which has had open carry since November 2012. Proponents contended that because the neighboring state hasn’t dissolved into mayhem since the law came into effect, Texas won’t either.
Public universities are still trying to figure out how best to implement campus carry, which will be on campuses on August 1, 2016—the day of the fiftieth anniversary of Charles Whitman’s shooting rampage from the University of Texas at Austin’s clock tower. Open carry, however, is now just two weeks away.
Texas law enforcement has also been pretty vocal about their concerns with open carry. They are, after all, the group who’ll have to deal with most of the potential fallout of the new law in the upcoming months. While a majority of police chiefs have expressed a general opposition to the law (75 percent, according to a survey in February) , they were most vocal in May when a provision was added that would prevent police officers from stopping people solely because they were openly carrying a gun. By then, the passing of open carry seemed inevitable, so even Democrats who were originally opposed to the law supported the provision in hopes that it would help prevent the targeting of color openly carrying handguns.
“What’s going to happen is more interaction between police and black and brown and poor people because of lawful activity,” Rep. Harold Dutton told KXAN.
The provision made some sense, especially considering issues of racial profiling among Texas state troopers, but it was flawed. In May, Austin Police Chief Art Acevedo said at a news conference that the provision would “handcuff” police officers and prevent them from doing their jobs. He was accompanied by members of the Texas Police Chiefs Association, the Combined Law Enforcement Association of Texas, the Sheriff’s Association of Texas, and police unions from Houston and Dallas.
“If it doesn’t get removed, the only responsible thing to do is for the governor to veto,” Acevedo said.
Police opposition did manage to stall a bill that looked like it was straight on its way to Governor Abbott, who’d earlier promised to sign any bill that expanded gun rights. After the conference, House members opted to negotiate on the bill, eventually passing a version without the provision. That version then made its way to Abbott’s desk, and it was signed into law (at a shooting range, of course) in June.
— Greg Abbott (@GregAbbott_TX) June 13, 2015
Even with the provision removed, law enforcement still anticipate problems in the months after open carry goes into effect. As the Houston Chronicle’s Lauren McGaughy explained, they aren’t convinced by comparisons with Oklahoma.
Experts predict that open carry will most likely take place in small numbers in rural areas, but unlike Oklahoma, six of the most populous cities in the country are in Texas: Houston, San Antonio, Dallas, Austin, Fort Worth, and El Paso. And that’s not taking into account the political climate around gun control in Texas this year. There have been number of demonstrators openly carrying rifles in large cities, the most recent being a group of armed protestors in front of a mosque in Irving and demonstrators who marched with rifles near UT-Austin and later held a mock mass shooting to protest “gun-free zones.” It’s still unclear why they felt the need to protest what would soon be law.
But one of the biggest concerns of law enforcement is establishing the fine line between respecting the rights of someone legally carrying a handgun and protecting the general public. “What happens when an officer sees someone openly carrying a handgun in a holster, in accordance with the law, what can an officer legally do?” Shannon Edmonds, director of governmental relations for the Texas District and County Attorneys Association, told the Houston Chronicle. “We keep getting more questions than answers.”
The fear is that open carry will make it harder for police officers to tell the difference between a law-abiding citizen legally carrying a gun and someone with criminal intentions carrying a gun. In the Houston Chronicle, comments like these from Ray Hunt, president of the Houston Police Officers Union, don’t really help to clarify things.
Houston police, he said, will not “be doing random stops of people simply to see if they have a CHL,” but they also will not “sit back for 30 minutes” if they have a reasonable suspicion to stop someone.
So, what will they do?
Fears over this ambiguity were heightened after a Halloween shooting in Colorado, a state that allows open carry of rifles and handguns. That Saturday, Naomi Bettis called 911 to report that her neighbor, Noah Harpham, was walking around in public with a rifle. The dispatcher on that first call assured Bettis that open carry was legal in Colorado and Harpham was within his rights. Moments later, Bettis called 911 again after Harpham began shooting people. Harpham killed three people before he was shot and killed in a shootout with police.
On November 4, during one of the first informational meetings held in Houston to help citizens understand the upcoming effects of open carry, Houston Police Chief Charles A. McClelland, Jr., Harris County District Attorney Devon Anderson, and city attorney Donna Edmundson had difficulties providing any clarity.
According to The Trace, this was the very first question:“If a person is carrying his weapon openly, how does a police officer determine if he is legal at that point?” After hearing that police can indeed ask to see someone’s license to carry, the follow-up question was, “If I think someone is just walking around with a gun [without a license], should I just do a 911?”
That’s one of the major changes law enforcement expects in the months following open carry: An increase in concerned calls about people with guns. How do they respond appropriately to these calls and avoid something like Colorado’s Halloween shooting without infringing on anybody’s rights?
Chief McClelland advised the questioner to make observations about people openly carrying to gauge their threat level, using an example of someone walking into a bank in warm weather while wearing an “all-weather coat.” But he also promised that anytime someone felt alarmed and called police, “[they’re] gonna come.”
There’s also the issue of understanding which buildings the new law applies to. Even the panelists at the informational meeting admitted they were still working on figuring that out.
“As a police officer, it is so complex,” Chief Charles A. McClelland, Jr., announced. “I don’t really understand all the nuances of the law.” City Attorney Donna Edmundson agreed. “Unfortunately,” she said, “this law wasn’t written very well. It’s not very clear.” District Attorney Devon Anderson conceded, “This is complicated.” Later, she admitted to only learning that morning to which government buildings the law applied.
Earlier in December, commissioners in Smith County wrestled with the issue of whether they would run afoul of the new law by keeping their courthouses gun-free. According to KLTV, Smith County Sheriff Larry Smith argued to “prohibit open or concealed carry into the courthouse and other facilities that have a court. For the safety of the public with all the inmates that we carry through the tunnel to the courthouse every day.”
Smith County Commissioner Terry Phillips was hesitant, interpreting a memo from Abbott to mean that the “no weapons” sign (Penal Code 30.06) could only be placed on “individual courts and court offices” instead of at the entrance of the courthouse. Phillips worried that posting improper signs would lead to lawsuits under the new law. Eventually, on December 8, commissioners voted to keep Smith County courthouses gun-free even after open carry.
For all the questions and concerns that state law enforcement can anticipate, they’ve been conducting training programs and creating educational videos to train officers on how to handle open carry situations. In Rusk County, training began as early as September. In October, Emily Taylor, a lawyer with Texas Law Shield, told The Washington Times that she’d already conducted more than 40 training programs with law enforcement. There are even more training programs scheduled throughout the state all the way through May of next year. For the Austin Police Department, the preparation not only involves cadets and veteran police officers, but also dispatchers.
But we’ll have to wait until after December 31 to see how effective any of this has been.