Updated 4:17 p.m. with new information throughout.
AUSTIN — Texans can soon begin carrying a handgun in public without a license or training, after Gov. Greg Abbott signed legislation allowing permitless carry Thursday, calling it the “biggest and best” gun law this session.
The law takes effect Sept. 1. People 21 and older who can legally possess a handgun will no longer need a state-issued license to carry one outside their homes or vehicles.
By signing the divisive measure opposed by police groups, the Republican governor delivered a major win to conservative activists, who long sought to do away with the state’s handgun license requirement. It also underscores the strong political sway of gun rights groups in Texas, where polling shows a majority of voters say they want tighter gun laws.
“Surely there’s no state in America that’s ever done as much protecting gun rights,” Abbott said at a signing ceremony in San Antonio Thursday, where he appeared alongside embattled National Rifle Association leader Wayne LaPierre.
Proponents say law-abiding Texans shouldn’t need a permit to exercise their Second Amendment rights. Critics counter that the licensing system works to weed out dangerous people from carrying deadly weapons on the streets.
Right now, Texans must clear a background check, pass a safety course and show they can shoot to get a license to carry a handgun in public. More than 1.6 million are licensed in Texas. Each year the state rejects a few thousand applicants, mostly because of criminal history.
The law leaves the licensing process intact for people who still want to get one. Texans do not need a permit to carry a long gun in public.
At least 20 other states already have some form of permitless carry.
Abbott made expanding gun rights a priority this session, the first since gunmen killed 30 people in mass shootings in El Paso and Midland-Odessa. After the 2019 tragedies, state GOP leaders, including Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, seemed willing to consider tightening gun laws, but backed off after their party maintained control of the Legislature in the November elections.
Patrick didn’t directly answer questions about a statement in 2019 that he would “take an arrow” from the NRA to push for tightening background checks in gun sales between strangers. Legislation filed by El Paso lawmakers this year to make that change went nowhere.
“All of us want those who shouldn’t have a gun, not to have a gun, pure and simple. In fact the NRA are the ones who wrote the original background check and did a great job,” Patrick said Thursday.
He also thanked the NRA for helping get the bill over the finish line, telling LaPierre: “Without your help, we couldn’t have gotten it done.”
Rep. Joe Moody, D-El Paso, called it “unconscionable” for the governor to sign gun legislation when “Texas Republicans have stood in the way of real reforms that could prevent the next El Paso.” In August 2019, a shooter targeting Hispanics drove from North Texas to El Paso and killed 23 people at a Walmart.
”Instead of fixing our broken background check system, Texas Republicans voted to make it even harder to tell whether someone who has a gun will act responsibly with it — until the shooting starts and all doubt is removed,” Moody said in a statement.
The bill signing comes after a weekend shooting on Austin’s Sixth Street that killed one man and left 13 people wounded. When Abbott was asked about the timing, the crowd gathered at Alamo Hall for the bill signing booed. Abbott said he met with the victim’s family members, who told him: “Do not let this crime committed by teenagers be a reason to eliminate gun rights.”
Molly Bursey, volunteer leader with the Texas chapter of Moms Demand Action, said the bill signing confirms “Abbott is full of empty promises.”
“He promised to do something about gun violence after the mass shootings in El Paso and Midland-Odessa, but he just signed a bill that will make gun violence worse by letting people carry guns in public with no background check and no safety training,” she said in a statement.
Texas is loosening gun laws after President Joe Biden pressed Congress to tighten them with expanded background checks and an assault weapons ban.
In addition to permitless carry, Abbott signed several other bills that would 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.
“People want to be able to protect themselves and thank God Texas is leading the way for the country in making that possible,” said LaPierre, whose leadership is under scrutiny since the NRA became ensnared in legal and financial troubles.
For years, gun rights advocates found little appetite for permitless carry in Texas. But this year, a new House Speaker who had backed the bill in the past ushered in changes that smoothed its path.
After uncertainty about whether permitless carry could clear the GOP-controlled Senate, members made changes meant to appease law enforcement and hesitant Republicans.
People are prohibited from permitless carry for five years after they’ve been convicted of certain misdemeanors. They are assault causing bodily injury; deadly conduct; terroristic threat; and disorderly conduct with a firearm.
Schools, polling places, bars, sporting events and several other locations are off limits for carrying handguns. Businesses can also bar people from bringing one inside by posting a sign.