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Terry Holcomb waits to ask a question while open carrying at the Texas Republican Convention in San Antonio on June 14, 2018.

Leaders in both chambers have previously held permitless carry at arm’s length, but this year gun rights advocates have found powerful allies in the Texas House.

Credit: Bob Daemmrich for The Texas Tribune

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Texas Republicans have long taken pride in the state’s reputation as a bastion for gun ownership — but time and again they’ve stopped short of passing a law allowing handguns to be carried without a permit.

This year, however, proponents of what Republicans call “constitutional carry” say they have the best shot in the Legislature they’ve had in years. The momentum follows a shake-up in House leadership, who handed influential positions to supporters of the legislation, and comes as the practice is gaining traction in statehouses across the country. Meanwhile, gun control advocates are sounding the alarm about making it easier to carry firearms on the heels of three recent mass shootings out of state — and two in Texas in 2019.

“We are so close to making Texas a Constitutional Carry state,” Allen West, chair of the state Republican party, wrote in a March 10 fundraising email, three weeks before the legislation cleared its first committee of the session on April 1.

Under current state law, Texans must generally be licensed to carry handguns openly or concealed. Applicants must submit fingerprints, complete four to six hours of training and pass a written exam and a shooting proficiency test. Texas does not require a license to openly carry a rifle in public.

At least 18 states allow some form of permitless carry, and lawmakers in a handful of others have recently considered approving or expanding the practice, according to ABC News.

Leaders in both chambers have previously held permitless carry at arm’s length, but this year gun rights advocates have found powerful allies in the Texas House — crucially, Speaker Dade Phelan, who “has a record of defending the Second Amendment,” his spokesperson said in a statement.

Phelan, a Beaumont Republican, and the chair of the House committee that approved permitless carry last week teamed up in 2017 on a similar bill that passed committee, but it failed to make it to the House floor. Two years later, Phelan authored a law allowing unlicensed Texans to carry handguns in public for up to a week after a disaster is declared.

Phelan’s support is a notable shift from former Republican House Speaker Dennis Bonnen, who previously said the measure was “bad policy” and its supporters were “fringe gun activists.”

In 2019, permitless carry was declared dead after a gun rights activist pushing the legislation visited the homes of several Texas House leaders, including Bonnen, who said the visits were acts of intimidation.

“I have always fought to strengthen the 2nd Amendment rights of Texans. I – like the majority of Texans – draw the line at legislation that threatens the safety of our communities and makes it near impossible for law enforcement to distinguish between law abiding gun owners and criminals,” Bonnen said in a Facebook post after the incident.

But this year, Republican lawmakers are making another push, perhaps emboldened by Gov. Greg Abbott’s commitment at the beginning of the session to protect Second Amendment rights.

A pair of bills by state Reps. James White and Matt Schaefer would eliminate the requirement for Texans to obtain a license to carry handguns — either openly or concealed — so long as they’re not prohibited by state or federal law from possessing a gun.

“It’s important we keep allowing as many citizens [as possible] to be able to protect themselves, because if you can’t carry your firearm with you, then how can you protect yourself?” said state Rep. Kyle Biedermann, R-Fredericksburg, whose permitless carry bill, backed by the state Republican party, was left pending in committee last week.

Gun control advocates have fought against permitless carry efforts in past years, worried about increased violence and undermining what they say is a strong state permitting system. The debate became more urgent after recent mass shootings in Georgia and Colorado, which moved Abbott and other Texas Republicans to double down on protecting gun owners as President Joe Biden and Congressional Democrats renewed calls for stronger gun laws.

That Texas would consider making it easier to carry guns after those shootings and after 2019’s massacres in El Paso and Midland-Odessa “defies common sense,” said Ed Scruggs, spokesperson and board member for Texas Gun Sense. Following the 2019 massacres, Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick struck a softer tone on gun control, raising concerns about state laws allowing private gun sales between strangers without background checks.

“I can’t think of a worse piece of legislation to act on at this time than these constitutional carry bills,” Scruggs said, adding that gun and ammunition sales have soared over the past year. “We don’t believe it accomplishes anything to improve public safety. … The fact it’s gotten this far in the middle of more gun violence is, frankly, disturbing.”

Supporters said they were encouraged that Phelan put at least two of the lawmakers pushing permitless carry this year in positions to advance the legislation, including White, chair of the Committee on Homeland Security and Public Safety, and state Rep. Cole Hefner, who sits on the powerful Calendars committee.

White, R-Hillister, authored the state’s 2015 open carry law, allowing licensed Texans to openly carry their weapons in a hip or shoulder holster. Hefner, R-Mt. Pleasant, and Schaefer, R-Tyler, both sit on White’s committee.

Still, the appetite for passing permitless carry this year remains uncertain, as lawmakers are tied up with pandemic relief and overhauling the state’s electric grid – and as Republican and Democratic members alike have expressed concerns about the practice. Neither Abbott nor Patrick named “constitutional carry” a legislative priority, despite backing other gun bills. Abbott and Patrick did not respond to requests for comment for this story.

“[Constitutional carry] has less of a chance of passing than bills that are on the governor’s list,” said state Sen. Bob Hall, R-Edgewood, who is pushing the measure in the upper chamber. “I just don’t think this is the year for it. … To even get a hearing would be a step forward.”

State lawmakers from El Paso, where 23 people were killed in 2019’s Walmart shooting, wrote a letter to White last week, asking him to “reconsider whether [the bills are] the right approach for Texas in practice.” The next day, White’s committee approved two permitless carry bills in 6-3 votes.

“We require a license for people to drive. We require a license for people to sell alcohol. We even require a license for people to cut hair,” the Democratic House members wrote in the letter, obtained by The Texas Tribune. “Requiring a license to carry a gun is no burden standing between Texans and the exercise of their constitutional rights, and keeping it in place helps make sure we can at least enforce the laws already on the books.”

The lawmakers from El Paso “have some valid questions,” White said in an interview Wednesday, shortly after he met with them to discuss the legislation.

“What they experienced in El Paso several months ago was absolutely tragic and unfortunate,” White said. “My commitment to them is to continue working to ensure that folks are expressing their constitutional rights, and are able to do it without folks taking advantage and making our communities unsafe.”

So far, the legislation has yet to be voted on by the full House. If it passes the lower chamber, permitless carry would still require approval in the Senate.

“There has been some wariness in the Senate, but I believe things might be different this time,” Biedermann said. “We’ve seen some good signs, and I’m looking forward to … getting the bill to the floor so we can have a proper debate.”

Patrick in 2017 cited law enforcement concerns with the legislation.

“I think with all the police violence today we have in our state … law enforcement does not like the idea of anyone being able to walk down the street with a gun and they don’t know if they have a permit or not,” Patrick said in a radio interview at the time.

The number of licensed Texans has steadily increased since the end of 2016, with the state counting more than 1.6 million active license holders as of December 31, 2020.

State Sen. Bryan Hughes, R-Mineola, who chairs the Senate committee where several gun bills have been sent, did not reply to questions asking whether he would support or take up the permitless carry legislation. As of April 2, Hall’s bill and a version filed by state Sen. Drew Springer, R-Muenster, had yet to be heard in committee.

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