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Open-Carry Advocates See Hope in Abbott Proposal

If the state's Republican leadership succeeds, Texans could find themselves growing accustomed to the sight of openly carried handguns.

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For years, supporters of open-carry gun laws have pleaded with lawmakers to allow Texans to bear their arms openly in public. With the front-running Republican gubernatorial candidate proposing open carry laws, many supporters believe the time has finally arrived for legislators to approve such a measure.

"I think open carry will be the Second Amendment issue this next session, and I do think that we can pass it because the support is just tremendous," said state Rep. George Lavender, R-Texarkana, who introduced open-carry legislation that failed earlier this year.

In a speech earlier this month, Attorney General and GOP gubernatorial candidate Greg Abbott proposed allowing concealed handgun license holders to carry their firearms openly. Gun advocates say Abbott’s proposal reflects growing acceptance within Texas of unconcealed handguns, and some predict open carry laws could pass as soon as 2015. But opponents of the proposal say looser gun laws won't reduce violence.

"People are advocating for open carry because it gives a feeling of dominance, but there is zero scientific evidence that more guns or openly carrying reduces violence," said Kellye Bowman, the Texas spokeswoman for Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense.

The gun proposal was part of Abbott's “We the People” policy initiative released earlier this month. In it, Abbott called open carry important to anyone who wants to use a handgun as a deterrent or for self-defense.

“An openly carried weapon is no more dangerous than one carried in a concealed manner,” the proposal said. Abbott's proposal would also allow CHL holders to carry weapons on college campuses, subject to the approval of each school’s board of regents. 

Since 1995, Texans have been permitted to carry concealed handguns if they obtain a license from the Texas Department of Public Safety. Texas is one of six states, along with the District of Columbia, that expressly prohibit the open carry of handguns. A majority of states permit the open carry of handguns, with many requiring a license to do so. Texans can, however, openly carry long firearms, like rifles and shotguns, virtually without restrictions.

“Quite frankly, that makes sense,” said C.J. Grisham, president of Open Carry Texas. “You can’t really hide a rifle or a shotgun.”

Grisham said his group promotes the open carry of firearms as a matter of safety. But the group has drawn some criticism for its confrontational approach to advocating gun laws. In August, three members of the gun advocacy group were cited for disorderly conduct with a firearm as they sat with rifles outside a Starbucks in San Antonio. Gun advocates maintain that the citation was illegal.

Bowman called such displays "alarming."

"Texans pride themselves on politeness and common sense, and open carry is anathema to that," she said.

Charles Cotton, president of the Texas Firearms Coalition and board member of the National Rifle Association, said allowing CHL holders to carry handguns openly would not pose a threat to the public “because these people have proven themselves phenomenally responsible.”

“If a criminal walks into a location and openly sees a bunch of people carrying a firearm, they are much less likely to commit that crime,” he said. There are 584,850 active CHL holders in Texas, about 2 percent of the state's population, according to DPS

But Cotton said he takes issue with recent public displays made by groups like Open Carry Texas, which he said have led people to “panic.” 

“I don’t think you win anyone to your side of the issue if they’re afraid of you,” he said.

Cotton said Abbott’s proposal demonstrates that support for open carry has become more mainstream, and that legislation allowing it has a chance to pass.

Under current law, only license holders may carry handguns, and the weapons must be kept hidden from sight. Most holsters are not considered proper concealment. To receive a license, an applicant must be at least 21 years old, not be convicted of a felony, and be capable of exercising “sound judgment,” among other criteria. DPS conducts criminal background checks before granting licenses.

Some law enforcement officials have also welcomed Abbott’s proposal, albeit cautiously.

“It would take some getting used to,” said Gary Chandler, president of the Texas DPS Officers Association. “But those people have been vetted, and proven they’ve got some kind of knowledge of the laws and proficiency with the gun.”

When asked about Abbott’s open carry proposal, Kevin Lawrence, executive director of the Texas Municipal Police Association, which also endorsed Abbott for governor, said, “I don’t know that we really have a problem with that.” But, he added, “I do think it will require a bit of a change in our mindset.”

Abbott’s position in favor of open carry aligns with that of his Republican primary challengers. A spokesman for Tom Pauken said the former Texas Workforce Commission chairman supports open-carry legislation that was proposed by Lavender during the legislative session this year. A spokeswoman for Lisa Fritsch, another Republican contender, said she also supported Lavender's bill.

Kathie Glass, a Libertarian gubernatorial candidate, said she also supported an open carry law.

“There’s nothing to fear from honest people carrying their legal weapons openly and peacefully,” Glass said.

A spokeswoman for state Sen. Wendy Davis' campaign declined to comment specifically on open carry. But in an email statement, Davis said, “Americans have the right under the Second Amendment to own firearms, and that is not going to change.”

Cotton, of the Texas Firearms Coalition, said those who oppose open carry have little to fear from the proposal: “The vast majority of folks, I think, would not do it.”

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