Texas lawmakers are poised to send a bill to the governor’s desk that would let residents carry handguns openly, a measure that would make the state the most populous where residents can pack heat on their hips.
While both chambers of the legislature have passed versions of the bill, which allows residents with a permit to carry guns in holsters outside their clothing, the House of Representatives must approve a Senate change of fewer than 10 words before it makes its way to Republican Governor Greg Abbott. He has promised to sign the legislation into law.
Passage of the so-called open-carry measure came days after a shootout among motorcycle gangs and police in Waco left nine dead and almost 200 people booked in county jails. The violence didn’t deter supporters of the legislation, who said it was designed to give law-abiding gun owners greater freedom.
“The Senate has once again stood up for the Second Amendment to ensure law-abiding licensed Texans have the right to open carry,” Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick said in a statement.
Texas is one of only six states to ban the open carry of handguns, a fact that perplexes outsiders who take Texas for a freewheeling firearms state. In fact, Lone Star mayors and law-enforcement officers have long shunned wider visibility of guns in their crowded streets.
Police chiefs from Austin, Dallas and Houston warned that expanding the presence of guns in a state with three of the 10 largest U.S. cities could increase violence. Advocacy groups like Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America argued that the policy would promote intimidation by allowing people to brandish weapons in churches, restaurants and theaters.
“I don’t believe the display of deadly weapons, especially handguns that have no other purpose besides injuring and killing people, makes us safer,” said Senator Jose Rodriguez, a Democrat from El Paso. “The open display of handguns creates a hostile environment and makes it more likely the weapons will be used. That is bad for Texas.”
The resistance wasn’t enough to overcome a push by Republicans who vowed to deliver expanded gun rights to their constituents. Next to tax cuts, the right to openly carry guns has been a top priority for Tea Party Republicans who won expanded majorities in both houses in November.
Lawmakers were pressed from the first day of the legislative session in January when activists marched in front of the Capitol carrying AK-47s and waving “Come and Take It” flags.
Next week, lawmakers could vote on an additional measure allowing students and faculty to carry concealed handguns inside classrooms at public colleges and universities. The proposal has evoked particular resistance from administrators and students at the University of Texas at Austin, a school still haunted by a 1966 massacre committed by 25-year-old Charles Whitman, who perched atop a campus tower with a gun and killed 16 people and wounded dozens more.
While most states allow the open carry of guns, the most densely populated places have shied from the practice. The five most populous states -- California, Texas, Florida, New York and Illinois -- all prohibited the open carrying of hand guns.
The debate in Texas reflects a growing divide between rural and urban residents. About 60 percent of rural households in the U.S. own a gun, compared with about 30 percent of urban homes, according to the Pew Research Center.
The state’s urban Democrats tried and failed to amend the bill to allow residents in cities with populations of 750,000 or more to vote on whether they wanted open carry within their boundaries.
“As a gun-owning Texas mom, I’m ashamed of our Texas lawmakers,” said Angela Turner, a volunteer with Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America. “There is no evidence that shows open carry of handguns makes anyone safer.”
Moms Demand Action is one of several groups included under the umbrella of Everytown for Gun Safety, founded by former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg. He is founder and majority owner of Bloomberg LP, parent of Bloomberg News.