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With political pressure mounting, the Texas Senate is searching for a way to advance a measure allowing the permitless carry of handguns, even as support for it across the upper chamber remains in doubt.
The Senate has been feeling the heat since the House approved what supporters have dubbed a "constitutional carry" proposal last week, a breakthrough for gun rights activists who have come up much shorter in previous sessions. Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick quickly slowed momentum for the proposal Monday, however, saying there were not enough votes in the Senate for House Bill 1927 — but that he would see if there is a way to get there.
Patrick has expressed doubt about permitless carry in past legislative sessions and has not explicitly said where he stands on the issue this year. But he got to work late this week, creating a new Senate committee made up of a majority of permitless carry supporters that seemed to clear a path for the bill to advance through the next step in the legislative process. HB 1927 was quickly referred to the panel, the Senate Special Committee on Constitutional Issues, and its chairman, Sen. Charles Schwertner of Georgetown, said the committee would hold a hearing on the bill next week.
At the same time, Patrick's office sought to keep expectations in check.
"There are still not enough votes in the Senate to pass a permitless carry bill," Patrick senior adviser Sherry Sylvester said in a statement after HB 1927's referral to the new committee. "Today, Lt. Governor Patrick established some additional options to move a bill forward. He will continue meeting with law enforcement, gun rights stakeholders and Senators on this issue to find consensus and the votes needed to pass.”
With a little over a month left in session, time is running out to satisfy the bill's supporters. Beside the new committee, other potential Senate avenues include Senate Bill 540 by Sen. Drew Springer, R-Muenster, which was referred to the State Affairs Committee on March 11 but has not gotten a hearing yet. Schwertner on Thursday introduced his own permitless carry bill, Senate Bill 2224, and it was promptly referred to the Administration Committee, which he chairs.
The issue is catching Republicans between some of the most vocal activists on their right and law enforcement groups that have long resisted allowing people to carry handguns without permits. Those groups, as well as other opponents, have been successful in previous sessions in keeping the measure from reaching the House floor, saying permitless carry would make their jobs harder.
“We take it very seriously every time, but yeah, I think there’s even more momentum behind it on this particular occasion, and it has become a centerpiece, at least for those 30% of the Republican Party that want it so bad," said Kevin Lawrence, executive director of the Texas Municipal Police Association.
Polling released Wednesday by Everytown, a national gun-control group, found that 79% of Texas Republicans who voted in the November 2020 election support the current permit requirement to carry a handgun in public in Texas.
Lawrence spoke with the Tribune on Thursday evening, before it surfaced that Patrick had created a new committee to hear HB 1927. Doug Griffith, president of the Houston Police Officers' Union, said in an interview Friday morning that it was "kind of a surprise" to see the new committee but that he was hopeful it would produce a measure that better reflects law enforcement concerns.
“We hope that we come to a good resolution, one that protects the citizenry, protects the rights of them to carry and protects our ability to properly do our jobs and keep people safe," Griffith said.
The movement in the Senate came after days of building pressure on the chamber from Republican forces on the outside, including Texas GOP Chairman Allen West. "Constitutional carry" is one of the Texas GOP's eight legislative priorities, and Allen West — already an aggressive advocate for the priorities — has further sharpened his lobbying since the House passed HB 1927.
On Thursday, West and the National Association for Gun Rights announced they were teaming up to push the issue across the finish line at the Capitol, in partnership with the NAGR's Texas affiliate. The chapter's executive director is Chris McNutt, who angered the GOP House speaker last session, Dennis Bonnen, when he went to Bonnen's Lake Jackson home to advocate for permitless carry. That prompted Bonnen to declare the proposal "dead."
"Squishes in the legislature are M.I.A, and even worse, [Gov. Greg] Abbott and Patrick are actively running away from this legislation," West said in a news release announcing the coalition. "You’d think they’d be proud to whip the legislature and get it done.”
In a radio interview Tuesday, West rejected the idea that the Senate should tweak HB 1927 to appease law enforcement, calling it "not acceptable." Speaking with Lubbock host Chad Hasty, West said the GOP activists who decide the party's priorities "applaud ... what happened in the House, and they expect the same thing out of the Senate."
Pressure has also come from Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller, who has left open the possibility he could run for another statewide office in 2022 — and sued Patrick last month over the Senate rule requiring people to take COVID-19 tests before to entering the gallery and committee rooms.
"Constitutional Carry is must-pass legislation," Miller wrote in an email to supporters Thursday. "There is no way that it should die in a Republican-controlled Texas Senate with a Republican Lieutenant Governor as its presiding officer."
Perhaps seeking to show they are not roadblocks to the proposal in the Senate, several GOP senators have publicly declared their support this week for the House bill and "constitutional carry" in general. They include Sens. Drew Springer of Muenster, Brandon Creighton of Conroe, Bob Hall of Edgewood and Dawn Buckingham of Lakeway.
Senate rules require 18 votes for a bill to reach the floor for a vote in most cases. There are 18 Republicans in the Senate, meaning all would have to be on board with the proposal if no Democrats sign on. Several Senate Republicans have remained silent on the issue.
Even if the Senate were to pass a permitless carry bill, it is not known if Gov. Greg Abbott would sign it. He declined to say Tuesday whether he supported such a measure, saying he was currently focused on passing his emergency items.
But addressing Harris County Republicans earlier this month, Abbott spoke favorably of the concept as he introduced South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem, praising her for signing a law that allows permitless concealed carry of handguns in her state. Abbott made the remarks at the Harris County GOP's Lincoln Reagan Dinner on April 8, which was closed to reporters. Video of Abbott's speech was publicly released Wednesday.
"She's ... a leader for Second Amendment rights," Abbott said. "She signed into law a 'stand your ground' law like what we have here in the state of Texas and she signed into law a 'constitutional carry' law like what the state Legislature is working on as we speak."