A new pro-gun law in Texas that went into effect Wednesday allows most Texans who legally own a firearm to carry it openly in public without obtaining a permit or training, a measure that experts say will make it more challenging for law enforcement to protect the public from gun violence.
The controversial “constitutional carry” legislation is the latest in a series of pro-gun bills that state lawmakers passed this year as gun violence incidents rise in Texas and across the country.
The number of shootings in Texas, not including suicides, increased 14% this year with roughly 3,200 shootings compared to the same period in 2020, which recorded roughly 2,800 shootings, according to data compiled by the Gun Violence Archive (GVA). Gun violence incidents this year represent a 50% increase over the same period in 2019, which saw 2,100 shootings, the data shows.
“In Texas, repealing the permit altogether is a radical change,” said Andrew Karwoski, a policy expert at Everytown for Gun Safety, the largest gun violence prevention organization in the country. “Just allowing almost anyone to carry a handgun in public, no questions asked, no background check or safety training, is really dangerous.”
Conservative activists had lobbied for permitless carry proposals for years, but they were stalled in the past three legislative sessions. Declaring that the law “instilled freedom in the Lone Star State,” Gov. Greg Abbott signed the bill – which the state House of Representatives approved in an 82-62 vote – into law in June despite opposition from Democrats, some policing leaders and gun control advocates.
Dallas Police Chief Eddie Garcia said people open carrying firearms have made it harder for officers to differentiate a “good guy with a gun from a bad guy with a gun.”
“Owning a firearm and being able to deploy a firearm in a safe manner requires not only familiarity with the weapon system but also a level of proficiency,” said Frank Straub, the director of the Center for Mass Violence Response Studies at the National Police Foundation.
Known as House Bill 1927, the law applies to Texans age 21 and older and excludes people who are prohibited from legally owning a firearm, such as those convicted of a felony, assault, domestic violence or terrorist threats. Before the law went into effect Wednesday, residents could carry handguns only with a license and were required to complete training, as well as pass a written exam and proficiency test.
Republican supporters of the bill have argued that by removing the licensing requirement, they are removing an “artificial barrier” to residents’ right to bear arms under the Constitution and ensuring more Texans have access to “the protection of themselves or their families” in public.
“This bill, to me, is a restoration of the belief in and trust of our citizens,” said state Sen. Charles Schwertner, a Republican and the bill’s sponsor. “If you possess a firearm, you should be able to carry a firearm.”
Texas joins several other conservative states – such as Iowa, Tennessee, Montana, Utah and Wyoming – that have passed legislation this year allowing some form of permitless carry as President Joe Biden pushed forward executive actions to address gun violence in the wake of several high-profile mass shootings.
In more than 40 states, people can carry loaded, semi-automatic rifles in public without a license or training. Five states, including California and the District of Columbia, ban the open carry of loaded long guns, while only Massachusetts, Minnesota and New Jersey require permits to openly carry long guns, according to Everytown. In 29 states, civilians can open carry loaded long guns around state capitols, according to Everytown.
“As we’ve seen gun extremism continue to rise in this country, we’ve also seen people who open carry start out at marches and rallies and then show up in elected officials’ homes, in polling places, statehouses and then on January 6th at the US Capitol,” said Shannon Watts, the founder of Moms Demand Action, which has been fighting for gun safety measures since the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Connecticut that killed 20 children and six educators.
Open carry makes job more dangerous for law enforcement, officials say
Earlier this year, Texas law enforcement officials held a news conference in Austin to oppose the so-called “constitutional carry” legislation. They included Garcia, the Dallas police chief, and Doug Griffith, president of the Houston Police Officers’ Union. “A minimum level of training is not asking too much for carrying a firearm and it is consistent with the Second Amendment,” Garcia said at the news conference.
“It makes our job, the job of our men and women, more dangerous,” he added. “Gun owners have a duty to ensure that their firearms are handled safely and a duty to know applicable laws.”
If an individual is seen carrying a firearm at a protest or a store, there is little that law enforcement can do unless the person is acting in an illegal manner, according to Karwoski, of Everytown.
“One of the reasons that open carry is so dangerous is because it’s so difficult to enforce,” Karwoski said. “It’s hard for law enforcement when they see someone walking down the street with a military-style assault weapon to understand their intentions and respond accordingly.”
While everyone has the right to purchase and bear arms under the Second Amendment to the Constitution, said Straub, those individuals “should go through a process that ensures their possession of a firearm is done in a safe manner.”
But not everyone should have access to a gun, Straub said – especially those struggling with suicidal ideology, certain mental health issues, and a history of domestic violence.
“We need to have safeguards in place that protect the person carrying the firearm as well as the general public,” he said.
Research shows open carry can increase violent behavior generally
Mass shootings in 2019 at a Walmart in El Paso and in a shooting spree around Midland and Odessa left 30 people dead and dozens wounded, and they prompted Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick to briefly consider a gun control proposal that would make it harder for Texans to buy a firearm.
But during his annual State of the State address earlier this year, Abbott stressed the need to “erect a complete barrier against any government official anywhere from treading on gun rights in Texas.”
Texas has seen a consistent increase in mass shootings over the past four years. Through August 31, the state had 38 mass shootings, a 40% jump over the same period last year and a stark increase over the 19 mass shootings in 2019 and 10 in 2018, according to GVA data. Nationally, there have been 464 mass shootings through August 31, compared with 418 last year and 286 in 2019, GVA data shows.
CNN and the GVA define a mass shooting as a shooting that injures or kills four or more people, not including the shooter.
Several high-profile mass shootings in recent years have propelled law enforcement officials and lawmakers to call for stricter gun control laws, including restrictions on open carry. In Dallas in 2016, five officers were killed and seven others wounded in an ambush that marked the deadliest single incident for US law enforcement since the September 11, 2001 attacks.
White nationalists who attended the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017 stormed the city while openly carrying handguns and rifles. The rally ended with one person killed and 19 injured after a White supremacist slammed his car into a group of counterprotesters. In Kenosha, Wisconsin, last year, a group of men who openly carried guns during protests after the police shooting of Jacob Blake included then-17-year-old Kyle Rittenhouse, who shot three people with his long gun.
A report published last week by Everytown and the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED) includes a study of 560 events between January 2020 and June 2021 at which demonstrators, counterdemonstrators or other individuals or groups were present, either carrying or brandishing firearms.
“Contrary to claims that the presence of guns in public spaces makes people safer,” the report says, “demonstrations involving at least one armed individual tend to be violent or destructive 16% of the time.”
The study found that armed protests are nearly six times as likely to turn violent or destructive compared to unarmed protests. While armed demonstrations turn violent or destructive about 16% of the time, unarmed demonstrators might turn violent 3% of the time, the report says.
“Data shows that visible guns makes people more aggressive, so it’s a logical next step to believe that open carry makes it more likely that disagreements will turn into violent conflicts,” said Watts, of Moms Demand Action.
Preemption laws are part of the problem, experts say
In 2013, a group of mothers who were volunteering with Moms Demand Action was having lunch at a Dallas-area restaurant when they were confronted by a group of 40 men openly carrying long guns, Watts said.
“They pretended like they were aiming at the volunteers inside the restaurant and there was nothing the manager could do, because it was legal to open carry long guns,” she said. “We were shocked that this was legal behavior and it seemed like an alarming practice that was meant to intimidate and silence us.”
In the states where open carrying is legal, Watts said, members of the organization have been routinely surrounded by mostly armed men while they hold rallies, marches, volunteer events and private meetings. Volunteers with Moms Demand Action have helped dozens of corporations ban open carry in stores since 2013 and they will continue their work with Texas’ new permitless carry law, she added.
Part of the problem is preemption laws that cause cities to “bear the brunt of gun violence without allowing them to change the policies that could address it,” Watts said.
These laws are enacted in more than 40 states, including Texas, preventing cities and local municipalities from passing their own gun safety measures.
“Having broad preemption laws is incredibly stifling for local leaders when they want to create local solutions to gun violence and that includes open carry,” said Karwoski, of Everytown.
As a result, he said, densely populated cities and large urban centers are subjected to the same rules and regulations as rural and suburban areas where the gun violence crisis is much different.
“It means localities can’t regulate on a local level,” Karwoski added. “If they try to do this, they could be sued, subjected to fines, and other punitive measures that arguably have a chilling effect on any locality that regulates guns.”