AUSTIN, Texas (TRIBUNE) -- A hotly contested legislative session in 2015 led to two controversial gun laws: One that allows for the open carry of handguns and another that permits the concealed carry of handguns on Texas college campuses.
Now, one lawmaker is looking toward the upcoming legislative session with the hope to pass a bill that would give all Texans the right to openly carry a firearm — with or without a permit.
House Bill 375 — authored by State Rep. Jonathan Stickland, R-Bedford — is known as “constitutional carry” and it would make the licensing process and classes to obtain a permit optional. The idea, according to Stickland, is that Texans shouldn’t be forced to take a course and pay a fee to exercise their Second Amendment rights. If passed, Texas would be the 11th state to allow constitutional carry.
A number of Texas Democrats oppose the proposal. State Rep. Donna Howard, D-Austin, a critic of both the campus carry and open carry laws, said constitutional carry "seems to be an unnecessary thing."
And Moms Demand Action, a group that advocates for tighter gun control, will fight the constitutional carry proposal, according to a spokeswoman, Nicole Golden of Austin. Under Stickland's bill, there would be no way to tell whether people carrying handguns in public have a permit or have been trained, she said.
“That obviously concerns those of us who live and raise our families in Texas,” said Golden, a mother of two.
Last session, the Legislature made Texas the 45th state to allow the open carry of handguns. Senate Bill 17 — which took effect in January 2016 — allows roughly 826,000 handgun license holders to openly carry their weapons in a hip or shoulder holster. Currently, Texans who choose to carry are required to have a permit. According to Stickland, however, this shouldn’t be the case.
“Carrying a firearm is a big personal responsibility, and taking a couple of classes for a couple of hours doesn’t mean you’re necessarily ready to carry,” said Stickland. “For most gun owners, they put more time and training into it than the state mandates. We just think it’s time to restore the constitutional rights to Texas.”
Through spokeswoman Ciara Matthews, Gov. Greg Abbott declined to comment on whether he'd support a constitutional carry bill. In a statement to The Texas Tribune, however, Matthews said the governor “will always consider legislation aimed at preserving our right to keep and bear arms.” Abbott previously advocated for Texans who wanted to openly carry to go through the same training and background checks as concealed handgun license holders.
Stickland has a track record of championing pro-gun legislation. During the last legislative session, he supported open carry and authored House Bill 195, a constitutional carry bill that never received a committee hearing. Stickland said he’s hopeful HB 375 won’t suffer the same fate since both open carry and campus carry are now law.
“I think the next logical step for gun rights is to pass this bill,” said Stickland.
And Stickland is not alone among lawmakers wanting to make handguns easier for Texans to obtain and purchase. Within the first month of bill filing for the 2017 legislative session, state Sen. Robert Nichols, R-Jacksonville, and state Rep. Dustin Burrows, R-Lubbock, each filed bills that would eliminate any fees needed to obtain a license to carry. Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick said in a Nov. 30 news release he “strongly support[s]” Nichols’ legislation — Senate Bill 16 — and his “dedication and leadership to further support Second Amendment Rights."
"Texas has one of the highest license to carry fees in the country,” Patrick wrote of the roughly $140 Lone Star State residents must pay for an application fee, assuming they don’t qualify for discounts. “SB 16 will make lawful carry more affordable for law abiding citizens across the state. No Texan should be deprived of their right to self-protection because of onerous licensing fees imposed by the state.”
Patrick’s words were echoed by Abbott's spokeswoman, who said in a statement that Texas shouldn’t impose a fee on those wanting to obtain a license to carry.
“The governor believes Texans shouldn't have to pay a price to exercise their Second Amendment rights, and he looks forward to signing legislation that will achieve that goal,” said Matthews.
Meanwhile, Democrats have filed bills such as Howard's House Bill 391, which would allow public universities to opt out of the campus carry law. Currently, only private colleges are given that option.
"I think it's pretty telling that all but one — and that was a very small — private university opted to not have guns on campus because they determined that was not in the best interest of their campus," said Howard, referring to Amberton University in in the Dallas area.
Stickland told the Tribune he’s expecting a lot of attention surrounding his constitutional carry bill and that several lawmakers have already reached out and pledged their support.
“I know there are going to be thousands of people making phone calls this session about this bill specifically,” said Stickland. “But I don’t think there’s a Republican in the state of Texas who wants to go back home and explain a no vote on constitutional carry when it's in our platform and an overwhelming majority of the grassroots Republican voters want it."