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Texans With AK-47s Prod Legislature to Ease Curbs on Pistols

Thursday, 12 February 2015 03:59 PM

Texas lawmakers arriving at the Capitol for the legislative session's first day were met by roving bands carrying AK-47s and waving "Come and Take It" flags. They manufactured semiautomatic rifles with help of a 3-D printer.

The groups at the statehouse gates in Austin on Jan. 13 looked ready to revolt. In a sense, they were.

Firearm enthusiasts have declared war on gun laws in the Lone Star state, whose reputation as a cowboy utopia is belied by a Wild West-era restriction. Texas is one of just six U.S. states where residents can't carry handguns openly on the street, though long guns can be displayed freely. With an expanded Republican legislative majority, advocates say it's time to catch up with the hip-holster revolution.

"The purpose of the government is to protect our God-given liberties," said Don Huffines, a Dallas Republican state senator elected in November who is in favor of relaxing pistol rules. "It's not up to the government to tell us how to carry our guns."

The firearms fight in Austin is an early test for the new crop of Texas Republicans who won office in November with support from the Tea Party small-government movement. Their level of success will foreshadow their chances on issues such as school choice, border security and tax cuts.

Tea Party

Among those who were elected with Tea Party support were Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick, who sets the agenda for the legislature, and pledged to back the so-called open-carry law. At least half a dozen incumbents were defeated by Tea Party challengers who took office last month.

"The right wing of the Republican Party, in this case the gun interests, want to make this a litmus test for whether you're a real Republican," said Cal Jillson, a professor of political science at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.

Some want to make it a test of Americanism.

In a Facebook video, Kory Watkins, the leader of Open Carry Tarrant County, said that not supporting its platform was treason "punishable by death."

An e-mail sent to the group seeking comment on the encounter wasn't immediately returned. A telephone number for Watkins wasn't available in directories.

Their tactics have unsettled some lawmakers. During the January rally, members of Open Carry Tarrant County barged into the office of Representative Alfonso "Poncho" Nevárez, a Democrat. When Nevárez said he wouldn't support less restrictive laws, he was called a "tyrant."

Panic Buttons

A video of the encounter was posted online. The next day, the House of Representatives voted to allow for "panic buttons" to be installed more easily in legislators' offices.

There's "a level of aggression we're not used to seeing," said Representative Trey Martinez Fischer, a Democrat from San Antonio. "For lawmakers this has been quite an eye opener. We are charting a new course."

Gun-rights advocates are disappointed by the legislature's neglect of the issue in its meetings, which happen only once every two years. During the 2013 session, a bill died before making it to the floor.

"There was a lot of anger that came out of the 2013 legislative session," said C.J. Grisham, the founder of Open Carry Texas, a Temple-based group lobbying lawmakers. "We expected a majority Republican legislature to respect and vote for our rights to be reinstated, but they didn't do that. There was just no push for it."

Elections Matter

At least a half dozen bills have been introduced this year in the House and Senate that would allow for some version of open carry.

"We voted in people who were more prone to vote for open carry," Grisham said.

The 20 Republican senators also have more control over the agenda of the 31-member body than they did two years ago. At the request of Patrick, the Senate last month eradicated a six- decade old rule that required 21 lawmakers to bring a bill to the floor for debate. Now, only 19 are needed.

"With the switch to a three-fifths rule and corresponding elimination of the Democratic veto, licensed open-carry legislation now has a clear path to the governor's desk and enactment into law," said Mark Jones, a political-science professor at Rice University in Houston.

Bill Hearing

On Thursday, as a Senate committee held a hearing on two gun bills, the dozens who came to testify were directed to several overflow rooms because the panel's chamber couldn't hold them. One bill would allow handgun owners to openly carry their weapons, as long as they obtain a permit. The other would let concealed handguns into college classrooms, which supporters said would protect students from mass shootings.

"When people are faced with cold-blooded killers they stand a chance at protection" if they are allowed to carry a gun, McLennan County Sheriff Parnell McNamara told lawmakers.

Nevárez, the Eagle Pass Democrat who clashed with activists in his office last month, said the encounter has strengthened his resolve to vote against relaxing the law.

"Before that confrontation, I would have voted for some version of open carry," said Nevárez, who has gun range on his West Texas ranch. "Now I won't. I don't believe in rewarding bad behavior."

It hasn't shut them out of the statehouse.

Patrick said in an interview on Jan. 27 with the Texas Tribune that he didn't think there were yet enough votes in the Senate to pass the bill. The Tarrant County group responded on Facebook: "It's time to hunt down the Republicans who don't support the Constitution and the Republican platform."

Cordial Visit

On Jan. 29, the group visited Patrick's offices and met with the lawmaker's staff. They were served lemonade. Less than a week later, Patrick said two of the open carry bills would get a public hearing "as soon as possible."

Others say more guns on the street is the last thing Texas needs.

"You've got groups that believe they have a right to carry any weapon, any time, any how, and that the state has no authority to prevent them," said Kevin Lawrence the executive director of the Texas Municipal Police Association. "The right to keep and bear arms, if it was an unfettered right I could drive a tank down Congress Avenue or carry a bazooka into the convenience store."


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Texas lawmakers arriving at the Capitol for the legislative session's first day were met by roving bands carrying AK-47s and waving "Come and Take It" flags. They manufactured semiautomatic rifles with help of a 3-D printer.
texas, ak-47, legislature, pistol, restriction
Thursday, 12 February 2015 03:59 PM
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