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Gun Bills to Get Their First Capitol Hearing

Gun rights activists haven't been shy about making their presence felt at the Capitol. They'll have their first chance to weigh in on actual legislation on Thursday, when a Senate committee takes up two gun bills.

Members of Open Carry Texas at the state Capitol on Jan. 26, 2015.

Between two armed rallies, countless emails and phone calls, and at least one social media thrashing of the lieutenant governor, gun rights activists have made their presence felt in the Capitol since the opening day of the Legislature.  

They will have their first chance to weigh in on actual legislation on Thursday, when the Senate State Affairs Committee takes up two gun-related bills.  

Groups on all sides of the fight over gun laws will testify at the hearing, where lawmakers are set to consider bills that would let permit holders carry holstered handguns openly ("open carry") and allow concealed handguns to be carried on university campuses ("campus carry"). 

Notably absent from the Senate committee’s agenda on Thursday is a so-called “constitutional carry” measure sponsored by Dallas Republican Don Huffines that would repeal handgun permitting rules altogether. The bill, which mirrors legislation championed by Bedford Republican Jonathan Stickland in the House, is favored by vocal factions within the gun rights movement.   

Thursday's hearing follows Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick's recent promise to fast-track certain gun bills — a move spurred by the angry reactions of gun rights activists after Patrick suggested open carry legislation wasn’t a priority. 

At a Texas Tribune event in late January, Patrick said he didn’t believe open carry legislation had the votes to pass — and that it did not reach the “level of prioritizing” for the Senate, compared with other issues like education reform and tax relief.

In a statement the next day, Patrick walked back his comments. He announced that since he had already referred the campus carry bill to committee, he was free to “focus on other Second Amendment issues, including open carry, which I have consistently supported." 

Despite Patrick’s renewed attention on open carry — which is already the law in all but six states — the prospects for that legislation remain unclear. 

Efforts to allow handgun license holders to openly carry their firearms have failed during each of the last two sessions. This session, the behavior of some open carry advocates who favor constitutional carry has threatened to jeopardize the whole cause.

In the House, the vice chairman of the committee set to consider gun rights bills, state Rep. Poncho Nevárez, D-Eagle Pass, now has a security detail after kicking aggressive gun rights advocates out of his office on the first day of the legislative session. Threats against Nevárez led House colleagues in both parties to wear stickers showing solidarity with the lawmaker. 

Senate State Affairs Chairwoman Joan Huffman, the Houston Republican whose committee will take up gun-related legislation in the upper chamber, has expressed skepticism about whether either open carry or constitutional carry will pass this session. At a Tribune event in early January, Huffman said that being a supporter of the Second Amendment did not necessarily mean being in favor of such measures.

“Clearly the Republicans are all … very strong proponents of the Second Amendment — we’ll always have that in our mind as we make these decisions. But it’s a balancing act,” Huffman said.

She declined to say where she stood on the issues, adding only that she planned to keep an open mind about the various proposals.

Other top elected officials have offered varying views on handgun laws and whether they might change this session. 

In an interview with the Texas Politics Project on Thursday, House Speaker Joe Straus said he thought the votes might be there for a licensed open carry bill, but that he did not believe enough members supported constitutional carry — which would nix the licensing process altogether.

Gov. Greg Abbott has said that he thinks open carry probably has enough votes to pass, and that he will sign a bill permitting either licensed or unlicensed open carry if it reaches his desk. Even former Gov. Rick Perry has weighed in, saying he was "not necessarily all that fond of this open carry concept,” and that those who carry guns ought to be “appropriately backgrounded, appropriately vetted, appropriately trained.”

In an interview Wednesday, Stickland said he thought it was unlikely constitutional carry would get a committee hearing in either chamber. But he added that he was not discouraged by that news.

“I have promised that I am going to amend any gun bill into constitutional carry. I have never promised anyone that we would get it passed this session,” he said. “I have promised a record vote, and we will get it. A lot of it is going to depend on how much pressure these representatives feel on the issue.”

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