Some of the biggest news to come out of the first day of the Eighty-fourth legislative session—apart from Senator Konni Burton trolling Dems with her boots—was the contingent of pro-gun supporters in front of the Capitol. It’s difficult to ignore a posse of men armed to the teeth under any circumstance, but it’s especially eye-catching when they’ve got their own little DIY Smith & Wesson factory cranking out almost-useable guns.
The gunslinging supporters are protesting for passage of HB 195, introduced by state representative Jonathan Stickland, a law that would essentially allow citizens to pack heat anywhere their proud, Second Amendment-loving hearts desire (SomeConditionsApplySeeSection46.035ForDetails). As it currently stands, people can carry longarms or antique pistols in full view, a loophole of the law, but advocates are pretty confident this is the year unrestricted open carry will prevail.
Or will it?
History is not on the side of open carry proponents (OCPs). The law banning open carry is a solid 140 years old, and gun-rights advocates lost their most vocal and powerful legislative voice when Jerry Patterson got trounced in his bid to become the Republican nominee for lieutenant governor. Patterson, who loves his guns, wrote the seminal legislation allowing for concealed carry, and, as the New York Times so wonderfully noted, “for years . . . carried [a] loaded revolver in a holster in his boot and a loaded .380-caliber semiautomatic pistol at the small of his back.”
While Dan Patrick, who will soon be sworn in as lite guv, has certainly given a fair amount of lip service to firearms, authoring or sponsoring nineteen gun-related bills in four legislative sessions—ranging from allowing firearms on school grounds to allowing firearms on boats—none were for open carry.
He hasn’t come out in favor—or against—the controversial issue, but there are certainly some delicate politics at play here. It’s well documented that mainstream Republicans don’t look enthusiastically upon Open Carry Texas or Open Carry Tarrant County, two of the movement’s most vocal, attention-getting groups. That point was driven home last June during the Texas Republican Convention in Fort Worth. It started with signs reminding participants that guns weren’t allowed in the area (it had to do with a TABC license), before things turned slightly more contentious. As I wrote for The New Republic last year:
Things came to a head at the Monday platform meeting when Tom Meckler, chair of the platform committee, who would later help preside over the entire delegate vote, said no open-carry of black powder, not even pistols, would be allowed. Holcomb disagreed. So did state law. Still, the sergeant of arms was told to remove [executive director of Texas Open Carry Terry] Holcomb and police got involved. The situation was finally resolved with the chair of the entire Texas Republican party stating that black powder pistols were more than welcome.
But trouble continued to boil on Wednesday, after a temporary rules committee vote unrelated to firearms. According to accounts by several parties … committeeman Gerald Haddock was approached by two pistol-packing delegates who disagreed with his committee vote. An argument ensued. Heated words were exchanged. Haddock says he felt “confronted, coerced, bullied and threatened” by the gun-wielding delegates.
Haddock, a lawyer who once represented the Texas Rangers baseball team, is now loading his legal clip, requesting actual dispositions for an investigation that could turn into a lawsuit. He told me he wants to know “their plans going into this? Was it orchestrated by some higher source of order? Was it part of a plan of intimidation by a faction of the party?”
Open-carry advocates familiar with the incident say Haddock was acting emotional and that they never threatened Haddock. Also, they say only one person was strapped. Nevertheless, the next day, Bill Crocker, chair of the rules committee, stood before a room full of delegates and called the open-carry advocates an “embarrassment to the party.”
One gun-rights activist I spoke to during the convention, Amy Hedtke, who wore a fitting red dress with American-flag colored, knee-high leather boots, and a black powder pistol, put it succintly when she said, “We’ve had a Republican majority and we haven’t gotten any gun legislation through … because they’re f—in’ RINOs.”
But f—in’ RINOs are just one of many bumps in this road. The infighting between the various OCP groups could be the self-inflicted wound that ends their crusade. From The Daily Beast:
“We do things the way that works for us and they do things the way that works for them [said C.J. Grisham of Open Carry Texas]. There are people that don’t agree they should have to call the police when they go out and do an armed event. And we do.”
Local media reported this month that Grisham’s group was making a hard split from Tarrant County over the negative attention, including an earlier skirmish with the Arlington City Council. Contacting police before a protest “is one of those things that we’ve been in discussions with them about since the Arlington ordeal with the City Council,” Grisham told the Dallas-Fort Worth CBS affiliate at the time. “I think the Jack in the Box incident was probably the [culmination] of that discussion.”
But Open Carry Tarrant County is still listed as a member of Open Carry Texas’s “coalition” on its website, and Watkins was made an administrator of Open Carry Texas’s Tarrant County Chapter just two weeks ago. For his part, Watkins says the breakup was “blown out of proportion.”
People outside the gun debate, including members of the media, might find it hard to follow the intricate network of open-carry organizations within the state of Texas and beyond, and could lump them together. That tendency, Grisham told The Daily Beast, is partly to blame for the flak Open Carry Texas has taken for the actions of other groups.
With such similar goals, joining forces would make sense, but “the problem is tactics,” he said.
If even open carry-specific groups are arguing over tactics and message, it shouldn’t be too surprising that the largest umbrella gun-rights group, the NRA, has also tried to distance itself from the movement. First there was the letter during the convention in which the NRA chastised OCP for their demonstrative tactics (they later backpedaled). One member of the Texas State NRA I spoke with at the convention didn’t have enough bad things to say about the advocates protesting outside, although she insisted the NRA was working “behind the scenes” to get pro-gun legislation through. Whatever that means; she was vague about the details.
There was also concern voiced by the GOP rank-and-file inside the convention. “It’s not a radical thing, but it seems … a little unnerving to see people walking around the street with guns,” said one delegate. “I can’t say I’m completely comfortable with it. But that doesn’t mean I’m against it.” Another delegate was overheard railing against the OCPs, saying “I don’t want a machine gun to scare a little kid. .. If I were in Chipotle, I would have done the same thing, saying, ‘Hey, you’re scaring some of the people.’”
And the biggest obstacle against the OCPs’ mission could be just that: the messaging. People may say they’re all for Second Amendment rights. The reality, however, is different. There’s no denying the fact that seeing some guy (or several) brandishing a bunch of firearms scares the living hell out of people. The OCPs saw how these tactics backfired with their demonstrations at Chipotle, among other places. Just about every business has asked them to leave because customers were getting indigestion. Even when they tried to get creative, things got confusing—or worse. Take for instance the ill-advised idea of sending a posse of conservative white men into Houston’s Fifth Ward with guns. There’s also the absolutely tone-deaf tactic of adopting the Ferguson, Missouri-inspired “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot.”
The 3D gun demonstration outside of the Capitol yesterday, where members of Come and Take It Texas manufactured firearms on the steps of the statehouse, was, among other things, meant to show how silly and pointless it is to regulate guns, especially when they can be made from home. But another very easy takeaway is how much tighter 3D manufacturing (especially with guns) needs to be. It also reminds people that while a gun-wielding madman that can’t be stopped because everyone is unarmed is a frightening thought, so is the notion that everyone is a greasy trigger-pull away from setting off a gun.
Patterson might have been the loudest gun-lover in Texas government, but he was also rather middle-of-the-road. Everyone is expecting Dan Patrick to give the already-tilted legislative agenda a hard-right turn—and maybe that’ll include gun rights (even though that wasn’t at the top of his list during a press conference last week). The new legislature, with thirty fresh Republican members, is certainly more conservative than the previous iteration, and incoming governor Greg Abbott has promised to sign any such bill that reaches his desk. So, yes, pro-gun advocates have some momentum. They’ve seen a lot of victories in the recent years, both here and federally (e.g. District of Columbia v Heller). And if previous efforts are an indication—during the Eighty-third legislative session, the state passed a record number of pro-gun bills, fifteen total and twelve in one day—more pro-gun laws will likely get passed in Texas. OCPs can also point to public opinion being somewhat on their side. Stickland’s bill had 15,000 signatures in support of it, and a poll from May 2014 found that 54 percent of Texans supported open carry for people with concealed handgun licenses, according to the Houston Chronicle. (Granted, that was a few months before the Chipolte debacle, but a majority is a majority.)
Plus, if the loud demonstrations we’ve seen for months and months are any indication, this issue is not going to go quietly into the night. Despite getting some bad press, OCPs are getting press. Last session, it was fairly easy to ignore the “fringe” gun-rights group, what with so many laws being passed. But OCPs have proved they can now grab the attention of the spotlight. With so many pro-gun laws passed, just about all that’s left is open carry. Should the “RINOs” decide to skip on the subject, it’ll be interesting to hear their responses once OCPs start firing rhetorical shots. Will legislators say that Texas has bigger issue to worry about at the moment, or will they somehow say that despite being completely in support of the Second Amendment, a line has to be draw somewhere?
As of the second day of the session, at least one legislator has drawn that line. On Tuesday Representative Trey Martinez Fischer said a few members from the Tarrant County Open Carry confronted him and his staff inside the Capitol. The Democratic rep from San Antonio said he felt uncomfortable, prompting him to sponsor an amendment “to install panic buttons and eject hostile members of the public from their offices,” according to the Houston Chronicle, an amendment that passed Wednesday. And nothing says “we don’t want to pass your legislation” quite like being banned from the building.
(AP Photo/Austin American-Statesman, Jay Janner)