As momentum grows behind a push to let Texans carry handguns openly, the biggest fight may be among Second Amendment advocates themselves.
A conflict is emerging over how far changes to the current state law should go, and some gun-rights supporters fear that the divide may sink efforts to lift handgun restrictions during the legislative session that begins in January.
“If the acrimony between the various groups gets too pronounced, then nothing will pass,” said Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson, who helped get the state’s concealed handgun law passed in 1995, when he was a state senator. “Their challenge very simply is to recognize that the legislative process is designed to kill legislation and to drop their disagreements, even if it’s not perfect.”
The law allows the open carrying of long guns like rifles and shotguns. Texas is one of six states that specifically prohibit the open carrying of handguns, according to the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence.
In the last two legislative sessions, Texas lawmakers have unsuccessfully pushed to allow handgun license holders to openly carry their firearms. Five nearly identical bills that would do that have already been filed.
A sixth, from state Rep. Jonathan Stickland, a Republican, would allow Texans to carry a handgun openly without a license.
“There are a lot of people who are sick and tired of paying a fee for their basic rights and liberties,” Stickland said. “It’s rejecting the notion that we need to beg government for permission to do things like protect ourselves.”
Stickland’s proposal has attracted the support of activists who object to the costs of obtaining a concealed handgun license and the restrictions the state places on applicants.
C.J. Grisham, a retired Army officer who founded Open Carry Texas last spring after he was arrested while walking near his home with an AR-15, said his group would oppose any bill that stopped short of allowing what he called the “constitutional carry” of handguns. (Grisham was fined $2,000.)
“We will not compromise on our rights,” he said. "We absolutely will not."
Other gun rights advocates said that while they supported the unlicensed carrying of handguns philosophically, an incremental change to the law was more likely to succeed.
“We are supporting what will pass,” said Alice Tripp, the legislative director of the Texas State Rifle Association. “A lot of these folks are learning to be lobbyists, and they think if they scream hard enough and long enough and are abrasive enough, they’ll get the job done.”
Grisham spoke critically of established groups, including the National Rifle Association, which has denounced the tactics of his group and others like it, including armed rallies where protesters have carried weapons on city streets.
“The NRA likes to play nice,” he said. “What I mean by that is that they try to do nice things and get favors in return. We believe we shouldn’t have to buy our rights back.”
Catherine Mortensen, an NRA spokeswoman, said in a statement that the organization was reviewing all gun-related legislation filed for the next session. “We look forward to protecting and even expanding the Second Amendment rights of law-abiding Texans in this year’s legislative session,” Mortensen said.
State Rep. James White, a Republican who filed one of the bills that would allow open carrying with a license, rejected the idea that supporting an incremental step forward would compromise Second Amendment rights.
“To say that it’s either constitutional carry or nothing at all, well that’s not moving the ball,” he said. “That’s not making substantial change.”