On May 26, 2017, Gov. Greg Abbott visited The Range — a gun range in South Austin — to sign a bill into law that reduces the first time fee for a handgun license from $140 to $40, and the renewal fee from $70 to $40. The bill also reduces the license fees for senior citizens and completely waives them for peace officers. This will essentially make Texas’ handgun fees the lowest in the nation.
“The right to bear arms is something that is synonymous with the state of Texas,” said Abbott. “We are proud to expand the right to bear arms by lowering the cost of what you have to pay in order to get a license to carry. Texans’ ability to bear arms is going to be even bolder today than it’s ever been before.”
The new law went into effect on Sept. 1 along with all of the other bills passed during the 85th Regular Legislative Session. This new bill comes off the heels of open carry and campus carry, two hotly debated bills that eventually passed during the previous legislative session.
But will the events of the Las Vegas terror attack bring Texas’ ever loosening gun laws into question? Or will the state continue to make it easier for its citizens to carry firearms out in public spaces?
It may be hard to imagine for some, but Texas wasn’t always at the forefront of advancing Second Amendment rights; before 1995, Texas law banned citizens from carrying firearms out in public, openly or concealed. “An Act to Regulate the Keeping and Bearing of Deadly Weapons” was signed into law in 1871 under the administration of Gov. Edmund Davis, a southern Unionist who sought to end the chaos and crime that ravaged Texas when he took office. Passing sensible gun laws was something Davis intended to accomplish from the day he became governor, and a topic he acknowledged in his inaugural address.
“There is no doubt that to the universal habit of carrying arms is largely to be attributed the frequency of homicides in this State,” said Davis. “I recommend that this privilege be placed under such restrictions as may seem to your wisdom best calculated to prevent the abuse of it.” [sic]
But the way in which the majority Texas lawmakers view gun control drastically changed a century after the ban was instated. Gun rights started to become a huge part of the conservative platform at a time when Texas was transforming into the GOP powerhouse it is today. There were a few attempts to get rid of the 1871 law, and in 1995, the legislature under Gov. George W. Bush finally succeeded. The new law allowed Texans with a proper permit to carry a concealed firearm in public. Bush echoed Davis in his speech after signing the bill into law. “This is a bill to make Texas a safer place,” he said.
Enacting a concealed carry law was never the end goal for gun rights advocates in Texas. They wanted to keep expanding who can carry a gun out in public and where they can take it. In 2015, the legislature passed two controversial and fiercely debated laws: campus carry, which allows people with a permit to carry a firearm on public colleges in Texas, and open carry, which allows people with a permit to openly carry firearms out in public. And proponents of gun rights are only hoping to push the Second Amendment even further.
During this year’s legislative session, state Rep. Jonathan Stickland, R-Bedford, introduced House Bill 375 — known as constitutional carry. The bill would have allowed anyone to carry a weapon out in public with or without a permit. And Stickland wasn’t they only lawmaker to propose looser gun laws this year.
State Sen. Robert Nichols, R-Jacksonville, and state Rep. Dustin Burrows, R-Lubbock, each proposed bills that would have eliminated the fee necessary to acquire an open or concealed carry gun permit. Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick supported the legislation and endorsed Nichols’ bill. Neither of the bills passed, but the proposed bills give some insight into where lawmakers want to go next.
There is a a rising voice for gun safety advocates here in Texas in spite of the push for more gun rights. I spoke with Ed Scruggs, the Vice-Chair of Texas Gun Sense, a non-profit “that advocates for common sense, evidence-based policies to reduce gun injuries and deaths.” The organization was formed in 2007 as Students for Gun-Free Schools in Texas after the Virginia Tech tragedy. The organization expanded its membership and scope, and became Texas Gun Sense in 2013.
“We’re not here specifically to ban weapons. We want to have a conversation first,” said Scruggs. “We want to educate people.”
Scruggs explained that Texas Gun Sense was created to give gun safety advocates a local voice in the state. They are funded by local donors and work with lawmakers to bring about gun laws that put safety over anything else. They support universal background checks, suicide prevention, mandatory firearm safety classes, and a ban on assault weapons. The only people they want to keep guns away from are criminals and the mentally unstable.
These issues are extremely important for Texas Guns Sense, especially in the wake of the Las Vegas terror attack. The shooter, Stephen Paddock, lived in Mesquite, Texas before moving to Nevada. He also bought multiple firearms in Texas, and some of those weapons were discovered in the arsenal inside the Las Vegas hotel rooms where the shooting took place. And Nevada’s gun laws are eerily similar to those of Texas. The state issues concealed carry permits, allows open carry without a permit, and does not enforce a ban on assault rifles. People are also allowed to buy firearms on the internet without undergoing a background check as long as the seller and buyer are in the same state.
“The events in Las Vegas were absolutely horrifying, a worse case scenario come true,” said Scruggs. “And there are many opportunities for that to happen here.”
Scruggs understands that accomplishing Texas Gun Sense’s mission is an uphill battle. During this year’s legislative session, they tried to pass a bill focused on mental health and suicide prevention, but it didn’t make it out of committee. They also failed to pass a budget proposal that would have given the Department of Public Safety a percentage of the money made from gun permits in order to fund classes on gun safety and proper storage. But they weren’t defeated on every issue: They fought to stop constitutional carry, and won after some republican lawmakers felt uncomfortable with the vote. Texas Gun Sense hopes some change can come in 2019.
“These issues might be considered small, but they have never been worked through in Texas,” said Scruggs.