HOUSTON — Texas is so gun-friendly that it is easier to get into the Capitol in Austin with a firearm than without one — licensed, gun-carrying lawmakers and members of the public have their own no-wait security lane, and the unarmed masses have to stand in line and slog through the metal detectors.
But on Friday, gun rights throughout the state expanded still more, as a new law took effect that allows certain Texans to wear their handguns in holsters on their hips — or in shoulder holsters, Dirty Harry-style — openly displaying the fact that they are armed as they work, shop, dine and go about their day.
The so-called open-carry law has set off a long-simmering debate over the limits of the Texas gun culture and has given gun rights advocates a hard-fought victory after they pushed for the expansion for years. Members of the pro-gun group Open Carry Texas were to gather at noon Friday on the south steps of the Capitol for a gun-on-their-hips celebration before walking down Congress Avenue. Other groups plan to display their weaponry at events in Houston, Dallas and other cities.
“I think most people can expect Friday to be just like Thursday,” said C.J. Grisham, 41, a retired Army sergeant who formed Open Carry Texas in 2013. He says he plans to carry two semi-automatic pistols at the Capitol rally, and gave his 13-year-old daughter a pink .22-caliber rifle for her 12th birthday. “I think everybody is overreacting.”
More than 40 states allow some form of open carry. But Texas will become the most populous, and the public nature of the debate and vote has produced measures of elation, anxiety and confusion over the new law.
The mixed emotions have prompted law enforcement agencies to hold public meetings and release informational videos to help put some residents at ease, particularly in the wake of high-profile mass shootings.
Open-carry supporters say more public weapons will help deter would-be criminals. Opponents say that police officers will have a hard time separating the good guys from the bad, and that there is no evidence that open-carry states are safer.
The change directly affects only a small fraction of Texans — 925,000 men and women with active state-issued licenses to carry a concealed firearm, close to 4 percent of the state’s 27.4 million residents. Only those with a concealed-handgun permit are allowed to open carry, and all of them must submit their fingerprints and pass a criminal background check.
Texans do not need a state license to buy a handgun but must meet the federal qualifications. If Texas gun owners want to carry their handguns outside their home, they must apply for a license through the Texas Department of Public Safety, be at least 21 and complete training courses and a written examination.
State lawmakers and gun rights advocates have played down the effect of the new law, saying that they believe that the majority of those licensed to carry a firearm will choose to keep it concealed. Even the author of the law, state Rep. Larry Phillips, R-Sherman, said he did not plan on routinely wearing his handgun on his hip.
“I don’t thinkyou’re going to see a major change,” Phillips said. “Most people I talk to say they’re going to conceal carry.” Tim Vasquez, the chief of police in the West Texas city of San Angelo and the president of the Texas Police Chiefs Association, said police officials were bracing for “a huge learning curve” as they begin enforcing the law. “Most of us do support concealed, but we also understand that open carry creates a whole new set of problems,” Vasquez said. “If our officers see someone with an open carry, they do have the ability to stop and identify whether that person is permitted or not.” Gun rights will advance again in August, when students and faculty members at Texas universities will be allowed to carry concealed handguns on campus, although openly carrying them is prohibited. The new open-carry law allows businesses to ban the visible wearing of handguns, by posting signs with specific required wording in English and Spanish. Merchants and restaurant owners have been busy in recent weeks deciding what to do, and gun rights advocates have vowed not to spend money anywhere that bans open carry. One pro-gun website, Texas3006.com, has been keeping track of the businesses that have posted signs and created a “Wall of Shame” for those with the most entries (at the top of the list was the Sprouts grocery chain). Opponents of open carry have publicized their own lists, including the national group Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, which applauded H-E-B grocery stores, the Chuy’s Tex-Mex restaurant chain and others for banning open carry. “We feel customers and employees will feel safer when people are not openly walking around with guns,” said Anna Kehde, the Texas chapter leader of Moms Demand Action. “It’s hard to tell who is a responsible gun owner and who is someone I should seek cover from.” Certain places are off-limits to concealed and unconcealed handguns under Texas law in most cases, including sporting events, amusement parks, bars, courts, governmental meetings and places of worship. The law has brought renewed attention to the state’s licensed gun carriers, and questions of who will and who will not open carry. John Wittman, a spokesman for Gov. Greg Abbott, a longtime proponent of gun rights who signed the bill into law in June, declined to comment when asked whether the governor would openly carry. A spokesman for Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who also has a concealed-carry license, said Patrick did not plan on openly carrying. For many pro-gun Texans, the arrival of open carry is not enough. Many of them did not support the open-carry bill but instead called for legislation for what they called “constitutional carry” — allowing Texans to display and wear their handguns regardless of whether they were licensed to carry a concealed firearm because, they argued, the Second Amendment gives them the right to do so. They are urging the passage of a constitutional-carry bill in the next session of the Legislature. The new law is anticlimactic for one other reason. Texas has no prohibition on the open carrying of rifles, shotguns and other long guns, a right that gun owners have taken advantage of in recent years by showing up at open-carry rallies and other events with loaded AR-15s and other military-style rifles strapped across their backs.