The Dallas Morning News

House backs gun bill

Vote advances measure that would let unlicensed, untrained people carry firearms in public

- By ALLIE MORRIS and JAMES BARRAGÁN

AUSTIN — For the first time ever, the Texas House approved divisive legislatio­n that would let people carry handguns in public without a license, delivering a major victory to gun rights activists and Republican­s’ conservati­ve flank.

In more than six hours of debate Thursday, several Democrats warned that it would be dangerous to let untrained people carry a loaded gun in stores and on sidewalks. The chamber’s ruling Republican­s countered that Texans have a right to protect themselves.

Ultimately, the bill received initial approval in a 83 to 57 vote that fell largely along party lines. At least seven Democrats backed the measure, according to a preliminar­y vote count.

Dallas Rep. Morgan Meyer was the lone

Republican in opposition. Rep. Angie Chen Button, R-richardson, was present but did not vote.

Under the bill, anyone 21 and older who can legally have a handgun could carry it publicly without first passing the safety course and background check required now. About 1.6 million Texans are currently licensed to carry.

The bill’s author, Republican Matt Schaefer of Tyler, said people should not be forced to spend money and time getting approval to keep a gun with them, especially if they are fearful for their safety.

“This bill should be called commonsens­e carry,” he said. “Law-abiding citizens need the ability to protect themselves and their families.”

The Republican-led push to further loosen gun laws comes in the first legislativ­e session since gunmen killed 30 people in back-to-back mass shootings in El Paso and Midland-odessa in August of 2019. In the wake of the tragedies, top Texas Republican­s including Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick seemed willing to consider tightening gun laws, but backed off after their party maintained control of both chambers of the Legislatur­e in November.

Decried by Dems

Democrats largely decried the move. El Paso Rep. Joe Moody said the day will be burned into his heart because the chamber voted to relax gun laws before doing anything to make sure current rules are enforced and dangerous criminals are not armed. Surrounded by other representa­tives from El Paso, Moody said promises to the families of victims of that shooting had gone unfulfille­d.

“I am so tired of the gun being worshipped like some golden calf and hearing all about rights, but nothing about responsibi­lities,” he said. “When are we going to do something?”

Democrats in the chamber wore red ribbons to show solidarity with victims of gun violence. During the debate, they pointed to shootings in recent years in Midland-odessa, El Paso, Santa Fe and Sutherland Springs.

The bill needs final sign-off in the House before it can move to the Senate, where its fate is unclear. The chamber is dominated by Republican­s, but Patrick, the chamber’s leader, has not publicly stated his position on the bill. Similarly, Abbott has not publicly weighed in.

The Texas State Rifle Associatio­n celebrated the House vote Thursday, noting that at least 20 other states have already passed some form of permitless carry. “It’s high time Texas joined them!” the group wrote in a email to members.

Known as “constituti­onal carry” among supporters, who say the government shouldn’t block people’s right to bear arms, the policy gained little traction in Texas until this year.

Things changed when Beaumont Republican Dade Phelan — a past supporter of the policy — claimed the gavel and appointed another friendly GOP lawmaker, Hillster Rep. James White, to oversee the committee where it was heard.

A Phelan spokesman demurred when asked earlier about his support for this year’s bill, saying that as speaker, Phelan wanted to foster debate in the chamber.

Opposition mounts

Outside the Legislatur­e, opposition mounted this week from police chiefs, law enforcemen­t officers and some firearms instructor­s. They warned that the bill would let people carry in public even if they’ve never handled a gun before, which the instructor­s said could lead to deadly accidents.

“Too many of our lawmakers are listening to a small number of extremists who want to make our standards for who carries in public an honor system,” said New Braunfels resident Molly Bursey, one of several representa­tives from Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America in the House gallery Thursday for the debate.

But supporters of the bill say the government should not create barriers to exercising gun rights guaranteed in the U.S. Constituti­on. Members of Gun Owners of America sat in the House gallery on Thursday with shirts that read, “Victory or Death #Nocompromi­se.”

“Our first concern is to keep the Second Amendment intact and withstand any attempts to infringe on it,” said Kurt Norbut, 68, of Austin, who volunteers with Gun Owners of America.

Norbut said that states that adopted similar policies had lower crime rates.

“If one is truly interested in gun safety, they ought to support this bill,” he said.

As lawmakers debated the bill, an interfaith group broke out in prayer as a protest against the bill. The group loudly recited the Lord’s Prayer and sang “Amazing Grace” as they were escorted out of the House gallery by state troopers.

“This legislatio­n enables gun violence and we’re here to make a statement against it,” said Joe Cascino, a University of Texas student who was part of the group.

It’s legal in Texas to carry a rifle or other long gun without a license. But people must be licensed by the state to carry a handgun openly or concealed. The process requires passing a background check, taking a safety course, showing shooting proficienc­y and paying a fee. The bill would keep the license process intact for people who choose to get one for travel or other purposes.

It would also reduce penalties for people who carry a pistol into a prohibited place, so long as they leave when they are asked. People who refuse could face a $4,000 fine and up to a year in jail.

Schaefer said he wanted to ensure that people are not criminaliz­ed for making mistakes.

But several Democrats warned that the provision would force workers to confront people who unlawfully carry loaded guns in locations such as hospitals, courthouse­s and certain businesses.

Weighing exemptions

Rep. Jasmine Crockett, Ddallas, pleaded for courthouse­s to be exempted, citing shootings in several of them across Texas.

“It’s quite frightenin­g as a practition­er that we can’t even agree to protect our judges, to protect law enforcemen­t, to protect victims that are trying to go to court and testify against assailants,” Crockett said.

Republican­s rejected those amendments and several others, with the fiercest debate over who should be excluded from carrying guns in certain places. The bill says members of “criminal street gangs.” Two Democrats sought to also include violent white supremacis­ts and members of domestic terror organizati­ons.

“If it applies to the Crips, it should apply to the [Ku Klux] Klan,” said Rep. Diego Bernal, D-san Antonio. Schaefer said there should be a policy discussion about that outside the bill debate.

 ?? File Photo/staff ?? A 2019 NRA Personal Protection Expo at the Tarrant County Convention Center in Fort Worth drew a crowd of gun enthusiast­s. A divisive measure that would allow people to carry handguns in public without a license will need a final sign-off in the House before it can move to the Senate, where its fate is unclear. The Texas State Rifle Associatio­n celebrated Thursday’s vote.
File Photo/staff A 2019 NRA Personal Protection Expo at the Tarrant County Convention Center in Fort Worth drew a crowd of gun enthusiast­s. A divisive measure that would allow people to carry handguns in public without a license will need a final sign-off in the House before it can move to the Senate, where its fate is unclear. The Texas State Rifle Associatio­n celebrated Thursday’s vote.

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