Analysis: Disarming a Dangerous Coalition

An end-of-session deal on open carry of handguns and limits on police in Texas rescued Gov. Greg Abbott from political crossfire between law enforcement officials and an unusual coalition of liberal and conservative lawmakers.

Establishment Republicans rule the Texas House right now, usually teaming up either with social conservatives and Tea Partiers or with Democrats to form a large majority.

So it was unusual to see some of the very conservative Republicans and some of the most liberal members of the House team up like they did on legislation that would make it legal for licensed Texans to openly carry handguns in public.

They nearly put Greg Abbott, the state’s rookie governor, in a tight spot between Texas law enforcement agencies and a legislative majority. But in the end, those establishment Republicans appear to have saved him, stripping out a provision favored by that odd coalition and opposed — strongly — by law enforcement officials and groups.

The open carry bill stalled because of a provision that was actually approved by wide margins in both chambers. It would have limited the power of police to ask people carrying guns to show their permits — an idea that aroused fast and furious opposition from outfits like the Texas Police Chiefs Association, the Sheriffs' Association of Texas and the Combined Law Enforcement Associations of Texas, better known as CLEAT. Rep. Harold Dutton, a black Houston Democrat, added that amendment in the House. Sen. Don Huffines, a white Dallas Republican, added it in the Senate (after hours of debate).

Dutton told his House colleagues that he would be perfectly happy to see the open carry legislation fail, but wanted the protection in the law if it ultimately passes. He said the amendment was protection against racial profiling. “What’s going to happen is more interaction between police and black and brown and poor people because of lawful activity,” he said.

Huffines entered the debate through a different door, saying Texans with guns need protection against unreasonable search and seizure. “We have a duty to protect the civil liberties of Texans who choose to open carry,” he said. He campaigned as an advocate of constitutional carry — the idea that the Second Amendment gives people the right to carry guns and that no license from a state should be required at all. The Dutton/Huffines proposals would have brought the open carry legislation closer to that notion.

And at different times, the majority of lawmakers have given their assent. In April, the House voted 101-42 to approve the open carry bill — with the Dutton amendment attached.

But when it came back from the Senate this month on a 20-11 vote with Huffines’ amendment on board, the House voted 79-63 to send it to a conference committee instead of approving it outright.

Both the open carry legislation — House Bill 910 — and the legislation that would allow licensed Texans to carry concealed handguns on college campuses  — Senate Bill 11 — went to conference committees to settle differences between the House and Senate.

The open carry bill was resolved quickly, with the Dutton/Huffines language dropped. It’s now on its way back to the House and Senate for final approval, which would in turn send it on to Abbott for a signature.

The governor should consider himself lucky.

The coalition of liberals and libertarians makes sense if you think of them as two groups that harbor some of the biggest reservations and misgivings about authority — people who have strong feelings about protecting themselves when they’re out in the world.

But who thought the gun bills would come to this? Open carry was so politically popular that Democrat Wendy Davis said she was for it. She said later, after losing to Abbott in the race for governor, that her position was a mistake. Still, it apparently seemed like a good idea at the time.

Opposition to this kind of legislation can be dangerous in Texas. Former Gov. Ann Richards vetoed a concealed carry law. George W. Bush made hay of it and beat her in 1994. Here’s betting someone working in the Davis campaign last year had a memory going back that far.

And the political world in Texas still operates on what you can call the Ann Richards Rule: Don’t veto gun bills.

That rule makes it unlikely that Abbott would veto any form of gun legislation — open carry, campus carry, whatever — that reaches his desk, even if it’s not in exactly the form he would prefer. It’s bad politics and besides, the Legislature can always come back and change it later.

That would have been a hard sell with the cops.

“If it doesn't get removed, the only responsible thing to do is for the governor to veto,” Austin Police Chief Art Acevedo said at a news conference where law enforcement organizations expressed their opposition before things were worked out.

Abbott is a big fan of law enforcement, but governors have to watch out for that Ann Richards Rule. Now he won’t have to choose sides.