"Gun Advocates Take Up — and Make — Arms at Texas Capitol" was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.
*Editor's note: This story has been updated throughout.
As Texas lawmakers convened for the first day of the 2015 legislative session Tuesday, about a dozen activists carrying a variety of firearms gathered in front of the state Capitol to protest gun laws.
Members of Come and Take It Texas — a group that organizes armed rallies to protest gun laws and one of several pushing to scrap the state's handgun licensing requirements this session — also demonstrated how to make a weapon with a machine known as the Ghost Gunner.
The event was held in support of a bill filed by state Rep. Jonathan Stickland, R-Bedford, that would lift the state's handgun licensing requirements, which critics say impose unconstitutional costs and restrictions.
"People would be up in arms if we had to pay a fee in order to have freedom of speech," said Pablo Frias, who said he traveled from Arlington to participate in the rally and was carrying an AR-15 for self-defense "but also for educational purposes."
Another rally participant, Tammy Koontz of Lewisville, wore the T-shirt of a national gun safety group along with a holstered black powder pistol.
Koontz said she was collecting the signatures of gun rights advocates on the Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America shirt in protest of that group's support of tightening gun restrictions.
"They seem to think they speak for all moms and they don't. ... I'm for open carry because I have children," she said, adding that she planned to wear the shirt on the day open carry became legal in the state.
Responding to Koontz's comment, Moms Demand Action Texas Chapter President Elizabeth Claire said that the group believed in responsible gun ownership, and that she herself was an NRA-certified rifle instructor.
"But the permitless open carry bill that folks like Tammy and Come and Take It Texas are arguing for is out of step with public safety and makes Texas a symbol for extremism," she said in a statement. "That is not the Texas we want to raise our families in and not how we want the world to see Texas."
Texas, which allows the public display of long guns like rifles and shotguns, legalized the carrying of concealed handguns with a license in 1995. It is one of six states that specifically prohibit the unconcealed display of handguns, according to the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence.
Gov.-elect Greg Abbott has said he would sign an open carry bill if it reached his desk — and on Tuesday, rally participants displayed a copy of Stickland's bill with Abbott's signature as a gesture of support.
The measure is among several already filed this session targeting handgun restrictions, but it is the only one so far that proposes lifting licensing requirements altogether. Efforts to allow handgun license holders to openly carry their firearms have failed during the last two sessions, and it is unclear whether lawmakers have the votes to pass legislation that would repeal licensing requirements outright.
A divide exists even among gun rights supporters over the use of armed rallies to raise awareness for their cause. Some view the tactic — which features protesters carrying weapons such as assault rifles in city streets — as overly aggressive. The manufacturing of firearms at the Come and Take It rally has also drawn criticism from within the ranks of Second Amendment supporters.
At a second rally planned for later in the month by Open Carry Texas, participants will be carrying empty holsters instead of firearms. The group's founder, CJ Grisham, told the Texas Tribune last week that he had reached out to the Jan. 13 event's organizers to ask them not to use the Ghost Gunner at the Capitol.
"I don’t understand the purpose of it," Grisham said. "It seems confrontational and, really, needless. I mean, it’s the first day of the Legislature, we are this close to getting open carry passed, and now these guys want to come and manufacture a firearm on the steps of the Capitol? I just don’t get it."
At the Tuesday rally, Chuck Richter of Athens said he used the Chinese SKS rifle he was carrying for hunting, particularly hogs. He said that understood why people might not be comfortable seeing firearms in public but that part of the event's purpose was to demonstrate that they did not have anything to fear.
"It's less about intimidation than re-sensitizing people to something that should be customary," he said. "This is not North Korea, where only the state gets to carry protection."