The Wild, Wild West
During its 87th Regular Legislative Session, Texas became the fifth state this year to pass a law approving the so-called “constitutional carry” of handguns. With this decision, Texas joins 20 other states—almost all GOP-controlled—in allowing permitless concealed or open carry of a firearm. From Sept. 1st, 2021, Texans over the age of 21 without state or federal legal restrictions on their ability to own a firearm will be allowed to carry firearms, openly or concealed.
HB 1927 was introduced as part of the “most conservative” legislative session in decades and fulfilled a pipe dream of gun rights advocates upon its passage.
Gun violence advocacy groups, such as Everytown, as well as many police chiefs and public safety advocacy groups, condemned the legislation as an invitation for greater gun violence and danger to civilians and police officers, especially considering the requirements for safe use and storage of a firearm are no longer requirements under the new law.
This article will discuss how Texas arrived at this point, and examine trends in other states to extrapolate potential impacts of the legislation.
Shootout at the O.K. Corral: Ongoing Debate about Carry Laws
Former Speakers of the Texas House Joe Strauss (85th) and Dennis Bonnen (86th) both shot down constitutional carry proposals during their tenures due to the tactics of advocates for the legislation.
During Strauss’ tenure, implied death threats were made against lawmakers who opposed the proposal, and during Bonnen’s Speakership, Constitutional Carry advocates made visits to the personal residences of Speaker Bonnen and several other lawmakers.
Speaker Strauss and Speaker Bonnen both decried the advocates’ “intimidation” strategies, which drove a wedge between GOP leadership in the Texas House and supporters of the legislation.
However, current Speaker Dade Phelan was, predictably, more amenable to the legislation, likely due to his former co-authorship on a proposal killed by Speaker Strauss during the 85th session. Phelan appointed many pro-gun members to key committee chair roles, allowing the bill to glide through the legislative process and further signaling his support for the proposal.
Promises from key GOP lawmakers to take action following the devastating 2019 El Paso shooting made the streamlined advance of the proposal even more shocking to advocates and victims. Instead of action to combat gun violence and mass shootings, HB 1927 passed, coming as a proverbial “slap in the face” to the families of victims killed in the shooting, many of whom testified against the bill.
Other testimonies came from police chiefs and department heads of major cities in Texas—including Austin, Dallas, Houston, and San Antonio—who cited danger to officers and a correlation to a rise in gun violence and gun crime in their opposition. The original version of the bill would have prevented police officers from stopping individuals carrying a firearm to question them about their legal ability to carry under the new law, but this was eventually removed from the final version.
Opponents of “constitutional carry” proposals cite studies examining data from states that have adopted “right to carry” laws, showing a 13 to 15 percent increase in violent crime in the decade following the adoption of those laws. In some states, the increase is more extreme. For example, the Donohue study linked above “estimates that RTC laws in Pennsylvania increased its violent crime rate by 24.4 percent after 10 years” (Pg. 230). The Donohue study also estimated that states where “right to carry” laws were not adopted saw a significant reduction in violent crime over a 40 year period between 1977-2014, compared to those with RTC laws.
Other concerns relate to the lack of required training under the new legislation. While the effectiveness and rigor of current permit training courses for safe use and storage of a firearm are frequently questioned, some training is better than none at all. Activist group Everytown even goes so far as to argue that the training requirements of permits are essential to responsible gun ownership. Their position is seemingly justified by the data. There is an alarmingly high rate of negligent storage of firearms incidents in Texas, with as many as 193 unintentional shootings by children resulting in 92 deaths and 109 injuries from 2015 to 2020. Over a three-week period in August, from August 10th to August 31st, the number of unintentional shootings increased from 19 to 23 in Texas alone. Given these tragic facts, concern about ending requirements for this training looms large.
Many groups have also voiced concerns over criminals and unqualified individuals purchasing, carrying, and potentially using firearms under the new legislation. One policy paper from 2018 notes that over 3,000 individuals prevented from carrying a firearm under the existing License to Carry system would no longer need to go through the state screening process that denied their licenses previously. This concern was also voiced by several police chiefs during the hearings on HB 1927, who argued that unlicensed carry would make it impossible for officers to determine if an individual was a threat, greatly increasing stress and danger for officers.
Proponents of the legislation have argued several tracks. One major argument revolves around self-defense: criminals don’t follow the law, so why shouldn’t we be able to carry to defend ourselves against violent criminals? While data relating to this specific question presents a conflicting picture, Harvard Professor Dr. David Hemenway, Ph.D.1, drawing on a recent study by the National Crime Victimization Survey, argues that carrying a firearm in self-defense does not affect your chances of avoiding injury or death, and actually increases rates of violent crime. The study approximates the number of people who use guns in self-defense every year at about 100,000 people nationally, out of about 100 million Americans (32 percent of populace) who own a firearm. Assuming the correlation is similar in Texas, that would mean only 0.1 percent of Texas’ 1.6 million LTC holders use their firearms in self-defense in any given year. And yet, despite that fact, constitutional carry is somehow still about “self-defense.”
Another key argument is rooted in ideological grounds: as the name suggests, constitutional carry implies a constitutional right to carry a handgun. Many proponents, such as the Texas GOP, support the proposal on this basis alone. But questions arise over the necessity for relaxing the already lenient carry process in Texas. The previous LTC permit system was already a “shall grant” process: unless there were specific prohibitions or restrictions on an individual, the DPS was ordered to give out permits to anyone who applied and completed the required training. In 2020 alone, DPS issued almost 500,000 LTC permits, an increase of almost 200,000 from 2019. Gun Safety activists also consistently acknowledge the necessity of current LTC policies in their opposition to constitutional carry.
I’m Your Huckleberry
While there is no definitive evidence on either side of the gun violence debate, 60 percent opposition to the legislation (including 40 percent of Republicans), should have given the Legislature and the governor pause. Unfortunately, politics increasingly wins out over public opinion. Given that 2022 is an election year and Governor Greg Abbot is facing internal opposition from several candidates, like Allen West, who could pose a threat to his far-right base, it’s logical, albeit twisted, to see this legislation be pushed through. It is a tragedy that the political machinations of leaders desperate to retain the support of an increasingly extreme right-wing base will be reflected in legislative priorities in the years to come.
While Texas probably won’t return to the fabled Old West, featuring lawless towns, bandits, and shootouts over minor provocations, that won’t stop the governor from trying.
1 Dr. David Hemenway, Professor of Public Health at Harvard University, has written widely on injury prevention, including articles on firearms, violence, and suicide. He headed the pilot for the National Violent Death Reporting System, which provides detailed and comparable information on suicide and homicide. His firearm research focuses on a range of issues, including gun training, gun storage, gun theft, self-defensive gun use, gun accidents, gun suicide, gun homicide and police killings.