2016 Elections

In Texas, a Candidate Needs Firepower

More guns means more killings, but the only solution is beyond the realm of the politically possible.

His mind is made up.

Photographer: Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images

As Alfonso Sanchez, an instructor at 360 Tactical Training in Houston, Texas, gave me my first handgun shooting lesson with a Glock 17, talk turned to the candidates in the 2016 elections. Texas votes on Super Tuesday, and guns are going to be an important issue in the state that will provide the Republican winner with the most delegates on March 1.

Sanchez, 28, who hadn't voted in 2008 or 2012 since he'd been deployed in U.S. Navy operations against drug smugglers, dismissed the Democrats out of hand. Hillary Clinton, he says, ought not even to be allowed to run given how she handled classified information; if Sanchez voted this time around, he says it would be to keep Clinton out. As for the Republicans, Ted Cruz seems to have a decent stance on firearms from Sanchez's point of view, but he isn't sure about Marco Rubio.

"He owns a Taurus," Sanchez's colleague contributed to the conversation through the open door of the shooting range's office. "Ah well, that's a crap gun," the instructor shook his head. "Brazilian. It'll go bang, of course, but it's just a bad design."

So much for Rubio.

Texas, where big urban areas lack a strong gun culture, doesn't have the highest gun ownership rate in the U.S. -- Alaska does, followed by some other sparsely populated rural states. Yet 35.7 percent of Texans own firearms, more than the national average of 29.1 percent. Also, it's a conservative state, and even people who don't own guns often feel strongly about their right to do so. A gun dealer in the Houston area, to whom I will refer simply as David since he asked me not to mention his last name or his store, recounts how the store saw a spike in demand for assault rifles while the Democrats still controlled the Senate, soon after President Barack Obama's election in 2008: "People thought this might be their last chance to buy one."

"Second Amendment issues will play an important part in this election in Texas," says Brandon Rottinghaus, an associate professor at the University of Houston. "Candidates will say similar things, and it'll matter how vehemently they say them."

The candidates are already at it. Cruz, expected to do well in Texas since he's local, tells his audiences that a liberal president will pick a Supreme Court judge who will reverse the court's decision in favor of individual gun ownership and only make it possible for members of a militia. Donald Trump says if Parisians had been allowed to buy guns freely, fewer people would have died in the Nov. 13 terror attacks. Rubio, the owner of the wrong gun, is less vehement than the others; but he too says gun control laws have proven ineffective.

Both Cruz and Trump overstate their case. According to D. Theodore Rave of the University of Houston Law Center, it is highly unlikely that the Supreme Court will overturn the relatively recent District of Columbia v. Heller ruling that affirmed individual gun ownership even if a liberal jurist takes the place of Antonin Scalia. And though Texas has some of the mildest gun laws in the U.S. -- the Brady Campaign gave it the lowest possible grade in 2013 -- people entering a concert venue like le Bataclan in Paris, where 89 people were killed, wouldn't have been allowed to carry guns here. 

Yet David the gun dealer sees allies in Trump and Cruz. To him, gun freedoms are the most divisive issue in the U.S. since slavery. He swears by law-abiding citizens' ability to carry weapons. "Criminals are looking for victims, and they don't go where people may be armed," he says. "That's why they shoot up schools and not police stations."

In his line of work, David says, he meets a growing number of worried people. His shop has a hunting specialization, but more and more people are coming in to buy handguns for self-defense, worried about incidents such as the San Bernardino shooting. David sounds mildly paranoid himself. "I went into this army and navy supply store in my area," he said. "There's a picture of an imam on the wall, and the owner wears what I would describe as Pakistani dress. And all the prices are so high that I have to wonder, is this really a business or a front for something?"

As someone living in Germany, with its tough gun laws, I find it hard to see eye-to-eye with him. In our part of the world, people don't get shot up as often as in the U.S. I can't even buy the argument that where one can't go into a store and buy a handgun for less than $300, murderers use other means.

In Germany only 24 percent of homicides are committed with firearms, and in neighboring Austria only 10 percent, compared with 60 percent in the U.S., according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. More importantly, the German homicide rate is just 0.8 percent per 100,000 residents, less than one-fifth of the Texan rate. It's much harder to stick someone with a knife or hit them with a brick than to fire a gun in anger. Countries with comparable per capita economic output have fewer murders if they have fewer guns.

It's harder to argue with pro-gun Texans about U.S. gun laws, though. Since the Second Amendment is sacred like the rest of the U.S. constitution, and it's politically impossible to attack it, especially in conservative states, authorities are constantly coming up with nuisance measures that are hard to square with common sense. "Limits on the magazine size don't solve the problem of violence," David says. "It doesn't take 32 bullets to kill someone, one will do it."

Much has been made out of the difference between concealed carry and open carry. Texas allowed the latter on Jan. 1, 2016. I asked Alfonso Sanchez, who carries a gun on his belt, to demonstrate the difference. He pulled his T-shirt over the gun: That's concealed carry. Then he pushed it back: open carry. I couldn't help laughing: It was as silly as the "open container" regulations that make it acceptable to drink alcohol in public from a bottle wrapped in a paper bag. 

Both Sanchez and David proudly told me that they don't know anyone who carries a gun openly. "Texans are polite people," David says. "They don't want to make anyone feel uncomfortable." I feel equally uncomfortable, though, knowing the guy whose parking space I've just stolen may pack a gun under his jacket. 

I'm not sure the kind of random restrictions that are often proposed and sometimes enacted in the U.S. can help reduce the country's high murder rates. According to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Texas has 4.4 homicides per 100,000 residents, and so does California with the toughest gun laws in the land and an A-rating from the Brady Campaign. Waiting periods and additional background checks are unlikely to make much of a difference: The U.S. is so saturated with guns that anyone who wants one will get one.

The palliative gun control practiced and preached in the U.S. today is an example of the kind of government dysfunction that gives populists such a wide opening. No wonder Trump and Cruz, who promise to leave gun owners alone, are scoring points: People feel they are better able to sort out their security issues without help from the government.

As in other areas important in the current election, such as health care and education, the only solution might be to start from scratch, disarming the population and imposing big fines on gun makers for every crime committed using their products -- the same treatment tobacco companies have received. Like other radical reforms, however, this one lies beyond the realm of the politically possible.

Clementa Pinckney, the pastor of the Emanuel church in Charleston, shot last year at his church along with eight other people by a white supremacist, pushed for tougher gun control as a South Carolina legislator. His successor Betty Deas Clark told me last week: "Since it was a gunman who killed our people, I am, of course, worried about guns. But I feel it is my priority to provide healing for the congregation." That may well be the right approach: Campaigning for an extra obstacle to gun ownership here and there is not going to eliminate the danger that forces Clark to have an ex-Marine shadowing her every step.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

    To contact the author of this story:
    Leonid Bershidsky at lbershidsky@bloomberg.net

    To contact the editor responsible for this story:
    Therese Raphael at traphael4@bloomberg.net

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