It was a front-page story in the Galveston County Daily News at the end of February: “Shots fired in bank parking lot.” A man in his mid-to-late 20s in a gold Buick had pulled into a Wells Fargo branch in League City, a town of almost 85,000 that stretches from Interstate 45 south of Houston to the Gulf, to case the lot for vehicles to burgle.
That particular day he picked the wrong truck. Using a window punch—a small tool not unlike a screwdriver—he broke a front window. The shattering of glass woke the man who had been sleeping in the pickup’s back seat. The robber reached in to grab a backpack and then jumped back in the Buick to make his escape, while the man he’d awakened reached for his .40 caliber handgun.
The men made eye contact as the Buick pulled away and, according to the victim, the robber reached for his glove box. Thinking he was going for a gun, the man in the truck fired his pistol, hitting the front and back windows of the Buick, which continued to speed off. Police never found the suspect.
According to the League City Police Department, the sleeping man in the truck was a Concealed Handgun License (CHL) holder. That’s not surprising. League City has more CHL holders per capita than any other city in the state. If Texas has a concealed carry capital, this is it.
Laws vary by state, but in Texas, anyone (excepting felons and the mentally ill) can buy a gun and keep it at home, in their car, or at their workplace. But if you want to conceal a gun in a holster or in your bag and take it with you (almost) anywhere, you’ll need a Concealed Handgun License, granted by the Department of Public Safety. Texas is known as a “shall issue” state, which means as long as you pass the FBI background check and don’t have criminal convictions or mental health problems, you’ll get the license after taking a one-day CHL course that includes target practice.
The Department of Public Safety issued 734 CHLs for League City in 2012.
Mark Eikenberry owns Outlaw Guns and Ammo, a gun dealership and manufacturer that he operates out of a back room in his single-story house in the League City suburbs.
Mark assures me that his pit bull, which growls as I step inside, is just old and crotchety, that we’ll eventually make friends. A big guy with a bald head, a gray goatee and a warm smile, Mark grew up in Arizona “in an extremely rural area where firearms were a necessity.” He moved to League City 15 years ago with his Texan wife, Jeannie, and started Outlaw Guns in 2008. He assembles AR-15 and AR-10 assault-style rifles, and his office is a menagerie of ammo, holsters, sights and other firearm paraphernalia.
He also teaches CHL classes and thinks League City has so many license holders for a number of reasons: “We’re close to Ellington Field military installation; Texas is obviously a very pro-Second Amendment state; and the demographics of League City just happen to coincide with the demographics of CHL license holders.”
According to university researcher Angela Stroud, who has written about masculinity and concealed-license holders, CHL holders are mostly white, middle-class men. League City is 80 percent white.
“Typically they’re on the conservative side of politics, though not always,” Mark says, “and League City is a more conservative area. … We also have many small businesses in the area and I think that plays into it, because [business owners] understand that they are their own front-line of protection.”
Crime in League City is low. In 2012 League City was named the seventh-safest city in Texas based on FBI data, and the 68th-safest city nationwide. Is that because so many people are carrying?
“It plays a role,” Mark tells me, “but I don’t believe the concealed handgun licensee is a deterrent to crime. It’s a consequence to a criminal if he chooses to make a wrong decision, but realistically it just happens to be the way the cards fell. Galveston County [which encompasses League City] also has more class-M motorcycle endorsements than any other city in the country. It’s just coincidence.”
Mark also suggests that League City is a family-oriented community, and that families like to shoot together. “A lot of them embrace it as a recreational form of bonding,” he says. “It’s a lot of fun.”
It’s not all about letting off steam at the range, though. CHL holders carry for protection, not for sport. Mark teaches people in his CHL courses to avoid confrontation whenever possible, but, he says, there are instances when the options narrow. “Unfortunately that’s where you have to decide if you’re prepared to take another human life,” he says.
“I pray I don’t have to use my firearm. I just want to live a peaceful life. But in the event I find myself in a situation where my last resort is exercising my use of deadly force, then I’m going to do it, because I’ve got children and grandchildren I want to see tomorrow.”
The Arms Room gun shop and shooting range occupies a 20,000-square-foot building that used to house a Circuit City. Bill James started the business in 2006. After he died in 2012, his wife, Mary, took it over. Now she runs it with their children Travis, Kathleen and Brandy.
Brandy Liss, neé James, is the company’s CEO. She tells me the business sprang from her dad’s love of collectible firearms, a post-military indulgence. The Arms Room originally operated out of a much smaller storefront where, once 5 o’clock rolled around, Bill would lock the door and customers and staff would crack beers and tell war stories. Brandy says regulars had a hard time with the move to a larger space, but business is booming.
In 2008, Brandy says, her father hung a poster announcing President Obama as Arms Room salesman of the year. “There was a huge run on ammo because the government was talking about increasing tax on it, so everyone went crazy,” she says. (No such proposal was ever made by the Obama administration, according to Factcheck.org.) She doesn’t take political stances herself. “I try to keep political banter out of any communication I have with our customers, because we do have liberals who come and shoot here.”
The Obama poster went up again this year. “The big scare now is that they’ll outlaw AR-15s,” Brandy says. The Arms Room put 200 customers on a waiting list to buy rifles after the Sandy Hook massacre, but has stopped taking pre-orders for fear people will start asking for refunds due to the wait.
Though she runs a gun shop, Brandy doesn’t call herself a “gun enthusiast.” Firearms don’t excite her, she says, but she does believe they’re a necessary equalizer. “I lack the upper-body strength to be able to defend myself or my children from an attacker, but put a gun in my hand and we’re on level playing ground.”
I ask Brandy, who has her CHL, whether women pursue CHLs for the same reasons as men, whether the stereotype of gun-toting hero extends to women packing heat. “Women have their delusions of fantasy as well,” she says. “I just got a brand-new minivan and I came up with a whole scenario of being car-jacked. I’m shooting sideways while the automatic rear door is raising, I do a 180-degree turn, grab my pump-action shotgun and I’m totally bad-ass. So the reality of it is … yeah, women do think like that as well. You don’t want to mess with me because I’m totally going to kick your ass.”
Brandy insists I try the gun range. They’re out of 9mm and .22 ammunition because so many people are snapping it up in the midst of the gun-control debate that’s polarizing the country. While new shipments arrive daily, the store limits sales to two 50-round boxes per customer.
Brandy lends me a .45 and sells me some ammo, but before I head to the range, I peer into a packed classroom where about 25 people—including six or seven women—are taking their CHL test. “We’ve seen a shift in the last couple of years,” she says. “More women want to shoot. And it’s happening nationwide.”
Gary Ratliff supports the Second Amendment. He believes private citizens should have access to weapons. He also thinks that background checks should be improved, and that measures could be introduced to ensure that those who buy guns are properly trained to handle and store them safely.
As League City’s assistant chief of police, he has seen too many law-abiding citizens injured by firearms because they don’t know what they’re doing.
Ratliff doesn’t like the term “gun control,” but he thinks it would benefit authorities to know whether someone purchasing a gun lives in a household with a convicted felon, or someone with a mental illness. “Everybody will say it will cause a backlog, but maybe that’s not such a bad thing,” he says.
It’s impossible to prove a correlation between League City’s high number of CHL holders and its low crime rate, he says. “If you pull the stats off the DPS website for the last three or four years, crime has dropped in all categories. Over time we’ve discovered it’s cyclical, and there are certain things that drive [crime] more than others—it could be unemployment, the economy. Do I think that criminals in this area know that League City has the highest number of CHL holders in the state? No way. It doesn’t work like that. Here, everybody’s carrying: the crooks and the law-abiding citizens.
“But,” he says, “if my wife is coming out of a store and somebody goes to attack her, I’d hope a CHL holder would be around.”
As if boasting a higher percentage of CHL holders than anyplace else in the state weren’t enough, the League City City Council in February passed a symbolic resolution to protect and defend its citizens’ right to bear arms. One section states that any federal law aimed at confiscating firearms, limiting magazine size, or requiring registration will be “considered null and void and of no effect in this city.”
Only one council member objected to the resolution, out of fear that League City could be sued by the federal government.
The person behind the resolution is councilwoman Heidi Thiess, a local gun dealer who made an unsuccessful run for the Texas House of Representatives in 2012. Over coffee at Panera Bread, I ask Thiess how necessary this all is. Does she really believe the Obama administration wants to disarm Americans?
“This nibbling around the edges, this is just the foot in the door,” she tells me. “It’s their stated goal. The goal is not registration, it’s confiscation and prohibition. Janet Reno is famous for saying registration is only the first step. I’m not playing around.”
Thiess will later email me the quote supposedly attributable to Reno: “The most effective means of fighting crime in the United States is to outlaw the possession of any type of firearm by the civilian populace.”
It’s been widely reproduced in the right-wing blogosphere that Reno said this in 1984. Or, depending on who you read, maybe 1991. According to Justice Department spokesman Bert Brandenburg in an interview with The New York Times, Reno never said it at all. “The assertion is untrue and the attorney general has never made such a statement,” Brandenburg said.
Thiess enlisted in the Army at 17. After she left the service in 1993, she worked in real estate and retail, and now runs a small dealership, Pretty Guns, that supplies firearms to women for home and self-defense. “It keeps me involved in the industry, and I love the industry,” she says.
Like Brandy Liss, Thiess sees guns as equalizers. “I want to be able to walk around safe and secure, knowing that should I be accosted by a person of evil intent, I can stop that before I or my loved ones are hurt.”
Thiess knows League City’s crime rate is low, but unlike Mark Eikenberry at Outlaw Guns or Assistant Police Chief Gary Ratliff, she believes there’s a direct correlation between low crime and League City’s high percentage of CHL holders. “You know the old adage,” she says. “Fences make for good neighbors. Criminals always go for soft targets.”
As for government talk about limiting magazine size and outlawing certain assault-style rifles, Thiess shakes her head. America has abandoned its principles, she tells me. “We have the right to bear arms, and until that is secured there is nobody who can come to me saying, ‘let’s just compromise here’ … I’m saying, it’s none of your business what I own.”
What about a helicopter gunship? I ask. She laughs. “If I want an Apache gunship, and if I can afford it, I should be able to have one. Let’s just be real honest, our founding fathers never put the Second Amendment into our Bill of Rights to protect hunting. It’s about self-defense from the criminal element on the street and the criminal element in our own government. Our founding fathers knew well the vagaries of human nature. They knew that power would always seek more power, that corruption was inevitable.
“They knew that tyranny requires the disarmament of a free people; that people are no longer free if they can’t defend themselves. At the time muskets were the newest, latest technology in warfare … I’m saying I deserve the latest and the best, because whoever comes to infringe on my freedom, I damn well better be as well-armed, if not better, than them.”