At a Legislative Hearing, Open Carry Advocates Pine for the ‘Old West’

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Senator Craig Estes presides over a meeting of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Rural Affairs, and Homeland Security. April 7, 2014.
Christopher Hooks
Sen. Craig Estes presides over a meeting of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Rural Affairs, and Homeland Security on April 7, 2014.

For a year, gun rights activists have been holding protests around the state, demanding the right to legally carry firearms in public places. They took their assault rifles to San Antonio’s Alamo Plaza, and they showed international visitors Texas’ best at South by Southwest in Austin. On Monday, they got a sign from the Legislature that their “open carry” efforts might be bearing fruit. At a day-long hearing of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Rural Affairs and Homeland Security, more than 60 witnesses, including a handful of opponents, testified in support of loosening the state’s gun laws—with an open carry measure at the top of the list.

Open carry supporters hope to codify the right to carry long guns like shotguns and assault rifles in public places—preempting local restrictions—and allow concealed handgun license-holders to carry their handguns openly. Last legislative session saw a number of gun bills passed, with “campus carry,” the right to carry firearms on college campuses, narrowly defeated after a lengthy debate. Notably, the open carry bills went nowhere, dying in committee. But now, open carry seems set to join campus carry as part of the gun debate next session, as the Legislature tilts rightward yet again.

In contrast to the passion and heated rhetoric from the open carry supporters who came to testify, the committee itself was poorly attended—only the committee’s chairman, state Sen. Craig Estes (R-Wichita Falls) stayed for the duration of public testimony.

The advocates invited to give testimony—among them, lobbyists from the NRA and the Texas State Rifle Association, and C.J. Grisham, the founder of Open Carry Texas—sold open carry as the correction of a historical error. Alice Tripp of the Texas State Rifle Association said open carry would reverse a restriction put in place in the 1880s as a result of the “occupying federal army during Reconstruction.”

Some had the history a bit wrong. The gun restrictions were enacted after Reconstruction, by Democrats who were, in large part, fearful of gun-owning freed slaves. But that too was raised by witnesses. Michael Cargill, an African-American Austin-area gun rights activist, described the bill as “the last of the Jim Crow laws.”

That was a revelation to Estes, who repeatedly asked for information on the subject, so expect that to become a big talking point next session.

And there were other arguments that abused history to varying degrees.

“The fact that there was so little crime in the Old West is because everyone was carrying around guns,” Grisham told the committee. “Texas was a low-crime state until these laws got passed during Reconstruction.”

That, too, is a bit off. Gun laws in the South came about primarily because of a fear of armed black people, but restrictions on carrying guns in towns in the “Old West,” which were surprisingly pretty common, contrary to the image propagated by Hollywood, were a reaction to spreading violent crime, not the result of it.

“In almost every section of the West murders are on the increase, and cowmen are too often the principals in the encounters,” wrote the Texas Live Stock Journal in 1884. “The six-shooter loaded with deadly cartridges is a dangerous companion for any man, especially if he should unfortunately be primed with whiskey. Cattlemen should unite in aiding the enforcement of the law against carrying of deadly weapons.”

Many newspapers from the Old West, while generally supportive of the right to own arms, found their overuse (and public display in towns and settlements) a menace. But we’ve progressed. It’s 2014. Crime is low. The risk of being targeted by an Apache or Comanche raiding party, while not recently calculated with scientific precision, is also low. Texans predominantly live in urban areas: Five of the nation’s 20 largest cities are in the state.

Yet the demand for a greater variety of legal weapons—some at the hearing made a bid for the Legislature to make Bowie knives legal, and one bemoaned that you couldn’t obtain a machine gun without “jumping through a bunch of hoops”—and more ways to carry and use them has never been greater.

For many of those testifying, guns are the ultimate expression of self-empowerment. They represent the right to free one’s self from any and all collective enterprises—police protection among them. So the stakes are high.

“Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable,” said Amy Hedtke, a homeschooling mom who brought one of her children to testify as well. “We are not asking you to plow new ground here. We’re asking you to stop salting the earth of liberty.”

Another open-carry supporter, William Brown, came for personal reasons. “At the age of 18, I committed a drug crime that cost me the next 17-and-a-half years of my life in penitentiary. I know what a human being is. I have a firm grasp on man’s true nature. I think people who disarm Americans don’t know what a human being really is. There is an element of humanity that is beyond sociopath. They make parole too.”

Brown, in a coat and tie and a long, braided goatee, added: “When I was a youngster, I used to commit robberies. I only went to places that beforehand I knew, they did not have firearms.” Open carry would be a deterrent to people like his younger self, he said. “Back then, if I had walked into a place and seen a gun in a holster, I would have turned right back around and walked out.”

New groups like Moms Demand Action—who were angry that they hadn’t been invited initially and were only included at the last minute—provide a potentially significant counterbalance to the gun rights movement, but they’re still dwarfed in terms of passion and numbers. Open carry will be a significant issue during next year’s legislative session—and Monday’s hearing was another demonstration, if it were needed, that those in support are by far the loudest voices. That counts for a lot.

Christopher Hooks joined the Observer in 2014. Previously, he was a freelance journalist in Austin, where he grew up. His work has appeared in Politico Magazine, Slate, and Texas Monthly, among others. He graduated from The New School in 2012 with a bachelor's degree in history.