After Years of Failure, Gun Bills Sail Through Senate

Members of Open Carry Texas rally at the Capitol.
Kelsey Jukam
Members of Open Carry Texas rally at the Capitol.

The right to bear arms wasn’t one of the five emergency items outlined in Gov. Greg Abbott’s State of the State address in February, but you might think otherwise if you’ve been watching the Senate lately. The Second Amendment took center stage this week as the Senate OK’d bills that would allow licensed gun-owners to carry handguns concealed on college campuses and openly everywhere else in public. Similar legislation has come up in the last three sessions, without much success. But with a fresh crop of senators, and the leadership of Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, the political climate has become ripe for passing gun bills that were once considered outside the political mainstream of the Capitol.

On Monday, Sen. Craig Estes (R-Wichita Falls), the author of the Senate open carry legislation, confidently batted down Democratic opposition as they pitched questions and offered up amendments to Senate Bill 17.

Sens. John Whitmire (D-Houston) and Kirk Watson (D-Austin) clearly did their homework, forcing Estes to consult with his staff numerous times to answer questions that should have been easy to answer (like whether a proposed amendment was germane to the bill—Estes said he didn’t know, but was going to move to table it anyway). But Estes and many of the Democrats acknowledged during the course of the debate that open carry wasn’t going to be stopped in the Senate.

There were numerous last-minute amendments to the bill. Three passed: one postponing implementation of the law until Jan. 1, 2016; another requiring extra training in weapon retention (how to hold onto your gun if it’s grabbed by an attacker); and one that would prohibit open carry on college campuses. The rest died quickly as votes split on party lines, 20-11.

Open carry legislation has never come this far. Last year, two open carry bills were left pending in the House Homeland Security and Public Safety Committee.

Sen. John Whitmire
Sen. John Whitmire was one of the most vocal opponents to SB11 and SB17.

C.J. Grisham, founder of Open Carry Texas, told the Observer that groups like his forced legislators to deal with gun bills this session. He says in the past, only a few lobbyists—most for the National Rifle Association and the Texas State Rifle Association—worked on these issues. But this time grassroots activists “mobilizing Texans all around the state” made the difference.

The success of open carry legislation in the Senate this year was more surprising than that of campus carry. Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick said during a Texas Tribune forum in January that he didn’t think there was enough support in the Legislature for open carry to pass, but the odds were much better for campus carry. Legislation to allow guns on campus has also gained more traction in past sessions than open carry. Last year, the Legislature passed a law to allow concealed handgun license-holders to store their weapons and ammunition in private vehicles on college campuses.

During the debate, Sen. Rodney Ellis (D-Houston) said he hoped that the “extended conversation” between senators on the floor would at least lead House colleagues to “taking a deep breath and not feeling the political pressure, and really deliberating” on campus carry.

Many legislators and activists are hoping that campus carry will face a greater challenge in the House this year than it has in the Senate. But in 2013, a campus carry bill passed in the House 102-41. Notably, 78 of the members who voted ‘yes’ on that bill are still in the House.

That legislation, however, included a provision allowing individual universities to decide whether to allow guns on campus. On Wednesday, Sen. Brian Birdwell (R-Granbury), author of the campus carry legislation SB 11, shot down a proposed amendment to let public universities opt out, though private universities can. Birdwell argues that private property rights must be respected as much as one’s “God-given” right to bear arms.

Referencing a recent poll that found most Texans don’t support campus carry, Sen. Sylvia Garcia (D-Houston) asked Sen. Birdwell, “What are we really doing here?” She echoed the sentiments of a few other senators, saying that local campuses should be allowed to decide whether to allow guns on campus or not. Birdwell said his aim is to advance to the ability of concealed handgun license holders to keep their rights, and though he values the opinions of those in charge of public universities, the “No. 1” opinion is that of “the people who sent us here.”

After four hours and 25 proposed amendments, SB 11 passed to engrossment, with all Republicans voting for it and all Democrats voting against it. The final vote on the bill will take place Thursday.

Correction: The original story stated that Sen. Craig Estes is a Republican from Granbury. In fact, he is a Republican from Wichita Falls. The Observer regrets the error.

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Published at 8:00 am CST
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