An amendment to Texas' so-called "traveling rule" regarding concealed handguns went into effect September 1 with hardly anyone noticing, though it comes close to gutting the law requiring Texans to obtain a permit to carry a concealed weapon.
House Bill 1815, championed by both the National Rifle Association and the American Civil Liberties Union, clarified the 2005 statute allowing residents to carry a concealed weapon for protection while "traveling" in a private vehicle without a concealed weapon permit.
Most district attorneys and police agencies around the state have construed the definition of traveling narrowly.
According to a study by Scott Henson, with the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, 13 county or district attorneys—including those in Houston and Fort Worth—instructed officers to quiz motorists found in possession of weapons about their travel plans or simply arrest them, seize the weapon and let the prosecutors sort it out. The questioning could get ridiculous: Visiting Grandma in another county was OK; getting groceries was not OK.
The burden fell on the motorist to prove he was "traveling" and thus allowed to carry a concealed gun without a permit.
The new law, the first bill Governor Rick Perry signed from the last session of the Legislature, now allows gun owners without a permit to carry a concealed gun both "to and from" their premises and their vehicles. Guns can be carried in cars with a few restrictions: They must be hidden from plain view, and the owner cannot be involved in criminal activity or a criminal street gang or otherwise prohibited by law from carrying a weapon.
In other words, if you're caught carrying a concealed pistol on the street and don't have a permit, tell the cop you're walking between your car and your home, either getting ready to travel somewhere or coming home. The burden now falls on the police officer to prove you are not really "traveling," which Dallas District Attorney Craig Watkins says is virtually impossible.
"If you read the new statute, it essentially does away with the concealed handgun law," Watkins says. As of September 1, his office no longer accepted most UCW (unlawfully carrying a weapon) charges that involved the "traveling" issue and dismissed pending cases.
"Actually we didn't really have a choice," Watkins says. "The law had changed, and some of the individuals could have fallen under the old statute, but it would be an unfair standard if we prosecuted them. And it's impossible now for us to prove those charges when we get them. Now it makes it the responsibility of the state to disprove that a person is on their way to or from their car, and that's pretty difficult to prove. It does a disservice to law enforcement. They have to prove this person was not on their way to somewhere. Why should they even bother [to arrest them]? I see it as a possibility for a lot of individuals with criminal intent to be carrying weapons."
The change has some police officers grumbling.
"It's insane," says one Dallas officer, who asked not to be named. "They basically destroyed the concealed gun law. We're letting drug dealers with Glocks under the seat go and say have a nice day. In the past we could have charged them at least with a weapons violation and confiscated the gun. Texas is wide open now. It's a huge story. This has just gone under everyone's radar."
Though felons are prohibited from carrying a concealed weapon, the officer says most police officers can't do thorough criminal background checks during traffic stops.
The officer says that Dallas patrol cops have received no information or training on the change in the law. A call to the Dallas police media office prompted puzzlement. "No one's told us," says Sergeant Gil Cerda. "We have yet to receive a legal briefing on that."
The Mesquite Police Department has informed its officers about the change, says a department spokesman, as has the Plano Police Department. Rick McDonald, public information officer for Plano, says that the change in the law may be more far-reaching than its supporters intended.
"It's a law for honest people and good citizens to stand their ground," McDonald says. "Now you can defend yourself in a carjacking. You don't have to retreat."
He says the Dallas Observer is the first media outlet to ask him about the change.
"Some of the smaller agencies may not know about this," McDonald says. Because Plano P.D. has an in-house lawyer who keeps officers up to speed on legal issues, most Plano officers have already had in-service training on this and other new laws, McDonald says. (The last session of the Texas Legislature was good for gun owners. The so-called "castle doctrine" was also modified and now gives citizens more leeway in the use of deadly force to protect one's home or place of business. It also limits the ability of criminals to sue for damages.)
"There's a lot more to this concealed weapon thing," McDonald says. "I work some off-duty at a church, and they have posted 'no gun' signs. A lot more employers need to be brought up to speed. I expect more employers and businesses to come out with rules" limiting possession of firearms on the premises.
Another unintended consequence, says McDonald, is the likelihood that more weapons, stuck in glove compartments or under seats, will be stolen from cars.
The ramifications will take a while to percolate through the system. But the bottom line is: "If you've got a car," says a Dallas officer, "you can carry a gun."
Of course, convincing a cop you were walking directly between your car and home when you're parked 20 miles from your house may be a stretch. Try telling them you're just extremely health-conscious.