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Open Carry Survives Despite Its Supporters

The session has barely begun, and the prospect of a new law allowing Texans to openly carry handguns first appeared to be inevitable, then dead, then alive again. Oddly, it's the idea's supporters who keep scrambling its political fate.

Activists who support a legislative proposal that would lift the state's handgun licensing requirements stand outside the state Capitol on the opening day of the Texas Legislature on Jan. 13, 2015.

A day after Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick came close to declaring legislation permitting the open carry of handguns dead on arrival, a deluge of angry calls and comments from gun rights activists appears to have resurrected it.

The latest twist in what threatens to become a multi-chapter saga, Patrick's change of course is a small symbolic victory for open carry advocates, who until now appear to have only stumbled in their interactions with lawmakers.

In a statement issued late Wednesday, Patrick, a Republican, walked back comments he made Tuesday at a Texas Tribune event saying open carry didn’t reach the “level of prioritizing” or have the votes to pass.

Announcing he had referred to committee another firearms bill — one allowing concealed handguns to be carried on university campuses by those with appropriate licenses — Patrick said he was now free to “focus on other Second Amendment issues, including open carry, which I have consistently supported." 

Texas is one of only a few states that still outlaws handguns to be openly carried. Attempts to legalize it have failed during the last two legislative session, but as lawmakers prepared to return to Austin in 2015, the state appeared to be on the brink of change.

In November, in his first news conference after winning the general election, Gov. Greg Abbott pledged he’d sign an open carry bill, following a campaign in which he and his Democratic rival both said they’d support changing the law. And the state had just elected a new lieutenant governor who edged out three rivals in the Republican primary, including incumbent David Dewhurst, with Second Amendment rights as a prominent focus of his campaign.

But the open carry movement has so far tripped over differences in tactics, and disagreements over how far changes to the current law should go. Barely two weeks into the legislative session, their antics have led to the installation of new panic buttons in legislative offices, a security detail for at least one lawmaker and a public display of bipartisan solidarity on the House floor.

On the Legislature’s opening day, the behavior of open-carry advocates attempting to drum up votes for a measure from Rep. Jonathan Stickland, R-Bedford, repealing handgun-licensing requirements prompted one lawmaker to kick them out of his office.

Kory Watkins, an organizer with Open Carry Tarrant County, posted a video clip of the encounter on Facebook. It showed state Rep. Poncho Nevárez, D-Eagle Pass, saying he will not be voting for the legislation, to which open-carry backers grew increasingly hostile, at one point appearing even to block the lawmaker from closing the door.

The confrontation led to the installation of new panic buttons in lawmakers’ offices. On Wednesday, dozens of House members wore name tags on the floor with the words “I’m Poncho” to show support for Nevárez, who now has a security detail after receiving death threats.

A Republican, Drew Springer of Muenster, was behind the gesture. He said he came up with the idea after Nevárez joked that he should hand out “I’m Not Poncho” stickers to fellow lawmakers so that they would not be targets.

“Immediately I thought just the opposite — we need to show support for him, that we aren’t going to let people threaten us,” he said. “We’re not going to let people, in some cases from out of state, threaten us physically and try to get their way. That’s just not the way democracy works. It’s not the way Texas works.”

Springer said he supports open carry for those who obtain a handgun license, but not lifting licensing requirements altogether. The latter is the goal of many open carry activists, who feel the fees and other limitations associated with licensing violates their constitutional right to bear arms.

The display in the House came a day after Patrick’s comments at the Texas Tribune forum, which triggered a chain of events.

“Second Amendment rights are very important, but open carry does not reach to the level of prioritizing at this point,” Patrick said. “I don’t think the votes are there.” 

Gun rights activists mobilized, taking to Facebook to denounce Patrick and organize calls to lawmakers' offices.

“Well, it's time to hunt down the Republicans who don't support the Constitution and the Republican Platform,” read a message posted by Watkins. “Then, we will expose them and help them find a new job by making sure they won't have a chance to ever get elected in Texas again. Time to start sending these people to California.”

Patrick clarified his comments in his own Facebook post — and Stickland issued a public statement saying he supported Patrick but that a “Texas Senator who opposes open carry does not believe in the 2nd amendment.”

Finally, late Wednesday afternoon, came Patrick’s latest statement, which, while leaving the fate of open carry unclear, made note that another piece of gun legislation is moving along. Originally authored by state Sen. Brian Birdwell, R-Granbury, the campus carry measure has a total of 19 co-authors, which means that — under the Senate's newly adopted rules — it already has enough support to be brought to the floor for passage.

"Once passed we will forward the bill to the Texas House as quickly as constitutionally allowed," Patrick said. "I am very pleased that the Senate is poised to cast this historic vote."

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Politics 84th Legislative Session Dan Patrick