Legislation that would allow Texas gun owners to openly carry handguns appears to be on a path to enactment, even after opponents of the measure invoked Sunday’s bloody shootout among biker gangs in Waco as a reason to tighten instead of loosen gun laws.
The open-carry bill, which has been passed by the Texas House of Representatives, cleared a state Senate committee Monday and now goes to the full Senate for a vote, where it is expected to pass. The Republican-controlled legislature has taken up a series of measures to expand gun rights, including a separate bill to legalize carrying guns on college campuses, and has two weeks left in the session to greenlight the laws.
Republican Gov. Greg Abbott said he would sign the open-carry bill if it reaches his desk.
But critics say the incident in Waco has served to highlight the problem of readily available guns and laws that are not strong enough to keep criminals from getting their hands on them.
“We are definitely supporters of the Second Amendment, but we have created a gun culture in a society that’s just too extreme. When you have lax gun laws, it’s far too easy for criminals and people with violent histories to obtain these weapons,” said Jonathan Pranzer, the executive director of Texas Gun Sense, a gun control advocacy group. “It does change the debate because of the fear of these O.K. Corral, Wild West shootouts … It’s come to fruition.”
The shootout, at the Twin Peaks restaurant in Waco, appeared to begin when one biker gang showed up uninvited to a meeting of a coalition of other gangs. A bar brawl soon escalated into a firefight, and police officers outside who were keeping an eye on the meeting quickly moved in. Nine people were killed, 18 others were injured, and 170 gang members were arrested.
Waco police said they recovered 100 guns in the parking lot, in addition to knives, chains and other weapons. The police department has not provided details about whether the bikers were in legal possession of the guns collected at the scene. Police spokesman Sgt. Patrick Swanton did not immediately return a request for comment.
“I don’t think lax gun laws created this vigilante system,” Pranzer said. “But I think it exacerbated it and made it worse.”
Texas, despite its gun-friendly reputation, is one of only six states that bar owners from openly carrying handguns — a restriction that dates back to the post–Civil War era, when it was meant to disarm former Confederate soldiers and freed slaves. The legislation being debated would allow the 85,000 Texans who have concealed-carry handgun licenses to carry their guns either in a shoulder holster or belt holster. Businesses would be free to ban firearms from their premises.
C.J. Grisham, a gun rights activist who is the president and founder of Open Carry Texas, said that what unfolded in Waco had no bearing on the open-carry issue and that the law would deter crime by arming law-abiding citizens.
“These guys weren’t open carrying,” he said. “What it shows is that criminals don’t care what the law is, and in Texas, by law, if you are affiliated with a known gang, then you’re not allowed to carry firearms at all. So the fact that these guys had guns anyways shows that criminals don’t follow these laws. All that our laws do now is keep law-abiding citizens from openly carrying.”
Abbott and other GOP lawmakers echoed that point on Monday.
“Well, the shootout occurred when we don’t have open carry,” Abbott said, according to The Texas Tribune. “So obviously the current laws didn’t stop anything like that.”
Still, Austin Assistant Police Chief Troy Gay said Monday during a Senate hearing in Austin that open-carry legislation would have made the job tougher for law enforcement officers who were trying to contain the Waco firefight if they had to try to discern between bystanders and those causing the disturbance.
“Officers responded very quickly, but open carry would or could have potentially caused more confusion for officers responding to this kind of situation,” he said.
Angela Turner, a volunteer with the Texas chapter of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, said the bloodbath in Waco should serve as a wake-up call to lawmakers who should turn their attention from putting more guns in more public places and instead focus on smarter restrictions.
“There’s nothing that would’ve been improved in that situation if even more people had been armed and openly carrying their weapons,” she said. “Our lawmakers are listening to a small, vocal minority of people and the gun lobby and kowtowing to their wishes instead of listening to the majority of Texans, who don’t support the idea of open carry.”