Gun rights in Texas see major expansion as Legislature rejects bills to address gun violence

Gun Rights

AUSTIN — Hotel guests could soon pack a gun in with their luggage. School marshals could carry one in the classroom. And firearm-criticizing companies could forget about doing business with Texas.

Gun rights in Texas are poised for a major expansion under a series of measures that have gone barely noticed as a bill to let Texans carry handguns without a license or training sucked up all the political oxygen. The Republican-dominated Legislature typically chips away at the state’s already permissive gun laws, but this year is notable for the breadth and number of changes.

“This was a very, very good session for the Second Amendment,” said Rep. James White, R-Hillister, who chairs the House Homeland Security and Public Safety.

Several bills are heading to Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican who made protecting the right to bear arms a rallying cry this session.

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“Texas is on its way to becoming a 2nd Amendment Sanctuary State,” Abbott proclaimed on Twitter this month, touting legislation nearing his desk that bars local officials from enforcing new federal gun rules.

“Don’t tread on Texas,” he wrote.

The tone is an about-face from two years ago, when top Texas Republicans including Abbott pledged to address gun violence after mass shootings in El Paso and the Midland-Odessa area.

Yet in the first legislative session since the tragedies, barely any firearm-related changes sought by El Paso lawmakers passed. Even the bills they filed to match gun reforms floated by Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick after the 2019 shootings went nowhere, amid pushback from gun rights groups that carry sway in a state with 1.6 million handgun license holders.

“Everybody had high hopes that something was going to happen,” said Rep. Lina Ortega, D- El Paso. “It’s been a very disappointing session when it comes to guns because I don’t believe we’ve gotten anywhere at all.”

Changing politics

The push to relax Texas gun laws this year was propelled by myriad factors, even as polls suggest the majority of voters support tighter firearm restrictions.

Republicans in the Legislature held onto their majority in November’s elections, despite high hopes from the left for a blue wave. In the House, Beaumont Republican Dade Phelan — a past supporter of permitless carry — claimed the gavel. He appointed White, another gun friendly GOP lawmaker, to oversee the committee that vets most firearm legislation, which had been previously chaired by a Democrat.

Rep. Tom Oliverson, vice chair of the House Republican Caucus, recalled conversations with Phelan early in the session about advancing “constitutional carry,” as it is known among supporters, who say the government shouldn’t block people’s right to bear arms. The policy long sought by gun rights activists, and opposed by law enforcement, had never gained much traction in Texas before this year.

“We talked about this session after session, nibbled around the edges and our speaker took it very seriously,” said Oliverson, R-Cypress.

Meanwhile in Washington, D.C., Democrats captured Congress and the White House in the 2020 election with an agenda to pursue stronger gun laws. After mass shootings in Georgia and Colorado earlier this year, President Joe Biden pressed Congress to tighten background checks and reinstate an assault weapons ban, which only reinvigorated calls from state lawmakers to designate Texas a Second Amendment sanctuary state.

Gun bills pass

The gun bills that advanced this year target a number of different areas. One exempts firearm safety equipment from state sales tax and another seeks to carve Texas-made suppressors out from federal regulations, which require filling out paperwork, paying $200 and waiting anywhere from six to nine months.

Legislation heading to Abbott would let school marshals, who go through firearms training to keep guns on campus, carry them concealed in the classroom, as opposed to locking them up.

It’s imperative “that the handgun be accessed as quickly as possible because if the need for the school marshal to respond arises, time is of the essence,” according to a statement of intent by the bill’s author, Republican Sen. Brian Birdwell, R-Granbury.

Clay Robison, a spokesman for the Texas State Teachers Association, contends the change makes a bad law worse. “Firearms don’t belong on a school campus,” he said.

Meanwhile, all three of the gun bills Patrick prioritized this session passed. They ensure gun retailers and manufacturers can stay open in a declared disaster, such as a pandemic; let people carry firearms to and from their hotel room and block the state from contracting with companies that refuse to work with the gun industry.

“This was an extraordinarily successful session for securing and expanding Texans’ Second Amendment rights,” said Texas State Rifle Association legislative director Andi Turner.

Most of the bills are set to take effect Sept. 1, just days before gun owners from across the country descend on Houston, where the National Rifle Association is hosting its 150th annual meeting.

Undeterred

After the two mass shootings in August 2019, Patrick declared himself “willing to take an arrow” from the NRA to press for background checks for gun sales between strangers. Abbott vowed to do everything he could to “make sure a crime like this doesn’t happen again” and issued a lengthy list of firearm safety recommendations for lawmakers to take up.

Sen. César Blanco, D-El Paso, turned those suggestions into bills he filed this year. One passed and the rest never got a hearing.

Blanco attributes the lack of action to a strong gun lobby and politics. Anything deemed anti-Second Amendment could potentially be used against Republicans in next year’s primary elections.

“My perspective is I think these are common sense solutions,” he said.

His bill that advanced, known as “lie and try,” lets local prosecutors go after people who are prohibited from buying a gun, but try anyway by lying on the background check form. While it’s already a federal offense, the crime is rarely prosecuted by federal authorities, legislators said.

Abbott has not said whether he will sign it. Other policies he had suggested lawmakers consider, such as penalizing people who don’t quickly report firearms lost or stolen and requiring courts inform convicted criminals they can no longer possess guns, went nowhere.

Ortega took a crack at passing legislation based on Patrick’s call to tighten background checks for firearms sold among strangers. It died in committee.

The gunman who rampaged through the Midland-Odessa area, killing seven people, failed a gun buyer background check because of a history of mental illness and acquired a firearm through a private sale that didn’t prompt one.

Neither Patrick nor Abbott’s office returned a request for comment.

Rep. Joe Moody, D-El Paso, has frequently spoken on the House floor about the shooting in his hometown in August 2019, when a gunman who said he was set on stopping a “Hispanic invasion” killed 23 people at a Walmart. Moody is disappointed the bills pursued by the delegation largely sputtered out, he said, but he is undeterred.

“These are issues I’m going to continue to work on because it’s the right thing to do,” he said.

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