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Texas Lawmakers Move to Drop Most Handgun Licensing Requirements

More than a million people in Texas have permits to carry handguns. People often head into grocery stores, barber shops, even college campuses carrying guns for protection. In 2019, when a man in a trench coat opened fire with a shotgun in a suburban church outside of Fort Worth, more than half a dozen people who had gathered for the service responded by drawing their own firearms.

Such scenes have been a point of pride in a state that has long seen itself as a model of responsible gun ownership. Guns have been allowed, even encouraged, but the state has had regulations requiring licensing, training and a demonstration of proficiency.

Now, within days, Gov. Greg Abbott is expected to sign a wide-ranging law that will throw much of that regulation out the window, allowing virtually anyone over the age of 21 to carry a handgun, no permit required. The landmark bill would make Texas — which has three of the nation’s 10 biggest cities — the largest among 20 other states to adopt a “constitutional carry” law that basically eliminates most restrictions on the ability to carry handguns.

Gun rights advocates say the adoption of so far-reaching a law in Texas, long considered a bellwether of gun rights legislation, could encourage similar conservative legislation in other states. Critics, including some senior law enforcement officers, call the new legislation a dangerous retreat from gun control amid a recent surge in gun violence, particularly in a state with a long and painfully recent history of mass shootings.

The new legislation was meant to “protect the right of law-abiding Texans to carry a handgun as they exercise their God-given right to self-defense and the defense of their families,” said Charles Schwertner, the Republican senator who sponsored the bill, which cleared the Senate on Monday.

Mr. Abbott described the bill on Twitter as “the strongest Second Amendment legislation in Texas history,” and was expected to sign the measure within days, as soon as it could be slotted into his schedule, said Renae Eze, his press secretary.

Texas already has some of the least-restrictive gun laws in the nation: Residents have long been able to carry rifles in public without a permit, for example, and few states have gone as far as Texas in allowing guns on college campuses, a law the state passed in 2015.

But it maintained certain strict licensing standards for handguns, including requirements for a four- to six-hour training course, a written exam and a shooting proficiency demonstration, all of which will be eliminated if the governor signs the new legislation into law.

“People who had never held a gun in their lives would be legally authorized to carry those guns almost everywhere,” said Ari Freilich, a state policy director with the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence.

The new legislation essentially extends the permissions available to carriers of rifles to handguns. It also removes the requirement that handguns be kept in a belt or a shoulder harness, but they must be in a holster.

People with criminal histories that would bar them from owning a handgun under federal law would still be barred from carrying a weapon. And the measure requires the Texas Department of Public Safety to offer a free online course on gun safety.

Versions of such a law had been proposed periodically over the last decade but had not garnered much support, and the idea of “constitutional carry” was largely dismissed as a remote dream of the far right. But the 2020 election changed all that, several analysts said, as the Republican Party in the state shifted further right and moderate legislators feared being outflanked by hard-core conservatives.

“Clearly the political terrain has changed,” said James Henson, the director of the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas. The new legislation, he said, “is a big hit among the far-right wing of the party, and those are the voters that the legislators have their eyes on.”

It is a marked change from the fall of 2019, when after a series of mass shootings in El Paso, Odessa and elsewhere, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick said on Fox News that he was “willing to take an arrow” as he pushed back against the National Rifle Association and joined calls for strengthened background checks. This year, Mr. Patrick helped to facilitate the new legislation’s passage.

There have not been signs of strong public support for a substantial easing of gun licensing requirements. In a recent poll conducted by the University of Texas and The Texas Tribune, nearly 60 percent of voters said adults should not be allowed to carry a gun without a permit or license.

The measure passed over the objections of numerous senior law enforcement officers who warned that removing restrictions on carrying handguns would impede their efforts to quell gun violence.

Handguns have long been a central component of violent crime in urban American, and Texas has three of the country’s largest cities, Houston, San Antonio and Dallas. The number of murders spiked in major Texas cities in 2020: There were more than 397 deaths in Houston, up from 289 the year before; Dallas had 245 deaths, up from 199; and Fort Worth saw deaths through November climb to 102 from 62, according to an independent tally of police statistics.

Douglas Griffith, president of the Houston Police Officers’ Union, said the number of guns owned by Texans was not the concern. “Honestly, we’re in Texas — everybody and their brother has a gun,” Mr. Griffith said.

But he said eliminating the training required under existing law was inadvisable. “Now you are going to have a bunch of untrained individuals out there,” he said. “That makes me fearful for our community.”

Ed Gonzalez, the sheriff in Harris County, the most populous region of the state, warned that the new rules could return the state to the days of the wild West.

“Permitless carry does not make our community safer,” said Mr. Gonzalez, who has been nominated by President Biden to head Immigration and Customs Enforcement. “Instead it increases the odds of deadly confrontation and puts the lives of first responders at even greater risk.”

Most Democratic lawmakers also objected to the changes in the law.

Representative Joe Moody, a Democrat who represents El Paso, where a shooting at a Walmart in 2019 killed 23 people, pleaded with fellow legislators during the debate over the measure. He warned that the law could spread further violence in Texas.

“One day, a tragedy will come to your community,” he said. “I pray that it doesn’t.”

Proponents of the legislation were dismissive of warnings that the law could lead to more violence, saying that the state’s major cities were controlled by Democrats who had failed to address the underlying problems that led to rising crime.

“I think there will be a lot less of an effect than everyone is predicting,” said Mike Cox, the former head of the Republican Party in Hays County and the former legislative director of the Texas State Rifle Association. “When we passed open carry they said, ‘Oh my gosh, you will turn Texas into Dodge City.’”

One of the state’s Republican U.S. senators, Ted Cruz, praised the legislation. “I applaud Texas legislators for passing this landmark legislation to make constitutional carry a reality and to protect the right of law-abiding citizens,” he said on Twitter.

Other gun rights advocates said they believed that Texas was enshrining into law a principle they considered fundamental to the Second Amendment.

“You don’t have to beg the government for a permission slip to exercise a fundamental right,” said C.J. Grisham, who has been pushing for an easing of restrictions on carrying handguns since founding Open Carry Texas in 2013.

But Ed Scruggs of Texas Gun Sense said the new legislation had reversed a long tradition of Texas holding itself up as a model of responsible gun laws. “Now it seems like there is not anything off limits,” he said.

David Montgomery contributed reporting from Austin, Texas.

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