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Texas Senate begins work on permitless carry gun bill

Chuck Lindell
Austin American-Statesman

The Texas Senate began work Thursday on a House-passed bill allowing holstered handguns to be carried in public without a state-issued permit — a contentious issue that has split law enforcement and drew hours of public testimony at a Capitol hearing.

While the hearing was underway, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick announced that the Senate will vote next week on House Bill 1927, which would end the requirement for a license to carry a handgun openly or concealed in Texas — with the result still in doubt.

Patrick told Dana Loesch, a radio host and former spokeswoman for the National Rifle Association, that he needs the support of all 18 Senate Republicans to allow a vote on the bill.

When the legislation came over from the House last week, "I had maybe six in favor, about six against and six unsure," Patrick said. "We're now up to 12 votes, maybe 13. I'm still a few short, but I'm going to bring it to the floor. It's rare I do this. Usually when you don't have the votes, you don't bring a bill up that's going to lose, but this is an important issue.

"I'm optimistic and working to be sure we get those votes to be able to pass it out," he said.

Sharon Lundgren, left, Angelica Halphen, both from Houston, and David Dennis, of Highland Village, wait in line Thursday at the Capitol to get into a Senate hearing about on a bill to allow permitless carry of handguns. Halphen carried photos of her son, Harrison Schmidt, who was fatally shot at age 18 in a 2019 road rage incident in Houston. Both women were planning to testify against the bill. Dennis was going to testify in favor of the bill.

During Thursday's 10-hour hearing, supporters argued that removing the permit requirement would enable law-abiding Texans to better protect themselves and their families while bolstering and restoring the constitutional right to bear arms.

"It is time for Texas to join the 20 states that have passed common-sense constitutional carry laws," Sen. Charles Schwertner, R-Georgetown, said to open the public hearing.

Austin:Police chief opposes gun bill, says it will make Texans less safe

"We cannot allow another session to come and go where we pay lip service to the Second Amendment while failing to fully restore and protect the God-given rights to our citizens," Schwertner said.

State Sen. Charles Schwertner backs House Bill 1927, which would end the requirement for a license to carry a handgun openly or concealed in Texas.

Opponents said safety would be compromised because a Texas license to carry requires a criminal background check, training in safety and gun laws and demonstrated proficiency in firearms use — letting law officers quickly determine that armed individuals aren't armed criminals.

"You are placing an officer in danger because under this bill anybody can, quite frankly, carry a gun in public in a holster without any kind of filtering," said Sen. Juan "Chuy" Hinojosa, D-McAllen.

"The main beneficiaries are the ones right now who do not qualify to have a license to carry a handgun," including those with felony or family violence convictions or mental health issues, he said.

The Senate has been a wild card on permitless carry, placing a lot of attention on Thursday's inaugural meeting of the Senate Special Committee on Constitutional Issues, formed by Patrick to tackle HB 1927 and the gun permit issue.

Shortly after 7 p.m., the committee voted 5-2 — with all Republicans in favor and both Democrats opposed — to approve HB 1947 and send it to the full Senate for next week's vote.

Hoping to increase support for the bill, Schwertner used Thursday's committee hearing to propose six amendments for consideration by the full Senate that he had prepared after speaking to law enforcement officials, senators and gun rights advocates.

People wait in line at the Capitol on Thursday to testify at a Senate hearing on a House-passed bill to allow permitless carry of handguns.

Amendments

Two key amendments would boost criminal penalties for felons and others who illegally carry a weapon and would strip language from HB 1927 that bans police officers from stopping or questioning somebody solely to inquire about a visible handgun.

Other amendments would:

• Add a prohibition against carrying a weapon while intoxicated that exists in current law.

• Abolish the $40 fee to obtain a license for those who need a permit to carry in other states under reciprocity agreements.

• Ensure that sensitive areas such as schools, hospitals and polling places can ban firearms.

• Require the Texas Department of Public Safety to create a free online course on gun laws and safety.

If lawmakers can agree on legislation to allow permitless carry, Gov. Greg Abbott said earlier this week that he would sign it into law.

'The bill should be called common sense:Texas House backs no-permit gun carry legislation

Pressure on Patrick

At Thursday's public hearing, 173 people had registered to speak on the bill, at two minutes per witness, before the sign-up window closed at 11 a.m.

Several police officers and law enforcement officials pointedly asked senators to oppose HB 1927 based on safety concerns for officers and the public, and interim Austin Police Chief Joe Chacon joined other police chiefs outside the Capitol to urge lawmakers keep licensing requirements.

"Many members of the Legislature have spoken a lot about law enforcement this session. I would ask that they listen to us when we say unequivocally that permitless carry will make constituents less safe," Chacon said.

Ray Hunt, executive director of the Houston Police Officers' Union, said the proposed amendments changed his organization's position from a "hard no" to a "cautious neutral" — provided the changes are adopted, particularly the stiffer penalties for illegal gun possession.

Still, Hunt said, the current license to carry law is working.

"Last year, there were 26,304 convictions for serious offenses in the state of Texas. Only 114 came from (license to carry) folks. When police officers are shown that card in Texas, we know that person has been vetted 14 different ways, and we know that person is probably one of the good guys," he told the committee.

"Vetting is not intrusive. It is key to safety," Hunt added.

Chambers County Sheriff Brian Hawthorne, speaking for the Sheriff's Association of Texas, said more members support HB 1927 than oppose it, making the organization neutral on the bill — though that could change to support if provisions were added to help officers quickly ascertain the legal status of somebody with a gun, he said.

"We like the LTC law. It's not broken, but we understand constitutional rights." Hawthorne said.

A bill must have the support of 18 senators to receive a floor vote. With no Democrats publicly declaring their support for HB 1927, gun advocates have been placing mounting pressure on the Senate's 18 Republicans to support permitless carry, arguing that opponents were wrong when they predicted mayhem would result from earlier bills that allowed concealed carry, open carry and guns on college campuses. 

Gun advocates also are directing pressure at Patrick, mindful of what happened in 2015, when the Legislature was debating allowing license holders to carry handguns openly.

Then, as now, Patrick expressed doubt that open carry would pass because it appeared to lack votes, provoking an immediate and loud backlash that propelled that bill into law.

If Schwertner's proposed amendments gain the needed Senate support for HB 1927, the changes would have to be approved by the House. Any disagreements would have to be ironed out by a conference committee, adding uncertainty as the session enters its final month.

Staff writer Kelsey Bradshaw contributed to this report.