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Open Carry Has a Good Shot of Passing in Texas, If Those AK-Toting Demonstrators Don't Screw it Up

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At the GOP convention in Fort Worth last weekend, as rifle-toting protesters stood outside decrying their guns' exclusion from the convention hall, three thirtysomething men, two brothers and a cousin, approached Texas State Rifle Association lobbyist Alice Tripp. Their pitch -- that Texans should have the right to openly carry handguns -- was identical to the one being shouted at the TV cameras outside. The difference was, this trio had their weapons holstered. Also, their weapons were carrots.

Open carrot -- get it?

Yes, that pun is awful, but that's not the point.

"They had a whole presentation that the three of them would go through that was just like standup," Tripp says. "That was the way it went. Their ideas are the same. Their intentions are the same as the guys that are doing demonstrations with long guns, but they were disarming."

They were preaching to the choir with Tripp, who's been lobbying for gun rights in Texas for nearly two decades, but clearly, they had a knack for bypassing knee-jerk defenses and making people listen.

Tripp and her fellow gun-rights lobbyists will be doing something very similar (albeit with considerably less slapstick) when the Legislature convenes in January. For the first time ever, the main gun-rights groups in Austin -- the NRA, the TSRA, and the Texas Firearms Coalition -- will be making a concerted push for open-carry legislation, and they say it has a very good shot at passing if open carry demonstrators like the ones outside the GOP convention don't screw it up.

It boggles the mind, but this wasn't even an issue in Texas a decade ago, despite the fact that the public display of handguns has been illegal in Texas since some time around Reconstruction and that only four other states explicitly ban open carry, making Texas a laggard on this particular front.

The big gun-rights battle in Texas, waged in the early to mid-1990s, was over concealed carry.

"Open carry was literally not on the radar screen," says Charles Cotton, an NRA board member and president of the TFC.

What changed, Tripp says, was the Internet. A critical mass of people suddenly realized what a rarity Texas' open-carry ban was, and they began mobilizing to change it.

The resulting legislative efforts have so far been less than spectacular. In 2007, Cotton says, a now-defunct activist group convinced state Representative Debbie Riddle to draft a bill allowing open carry, but she abandoned it after being pelted with a barrage of friendly fire.

Her bill was for licensed open carry, which essentially keeps the training and permitting requirements of current handgun laws but takes out the part about them needing to be concealed. The activists were pushing for unlicensed or "constitutional carry," in which anyone can waltz down the street with a visible sidearm with or without the government's approval.

State Representative George Lavender, a Texarkana Republican, picked up the torch from Riddle, introducing a licensed open-carry bill as a freshman in 2011, then again in 2013. The first died in committee without a hearing. The second time, there was a hearing, but it was doomed by the Democratic committee chair who refused to bring it up for a vote. Partly, says Democratic strategist Harold Cook, its backers were obscure legislators without clout. Partly, it was obscured by a slew of other bills like campus carry (which failed) and one halving training requirements for concealed-carry permits (which passed).

Open carry, Cook says, is "what naturally happens when you've already won everything."

"I don't think there's any question it's going to be more of a priority -- that would happen no matter what. Both Greg Abbott and Wendy Davis come out in favor of open carry. ... That alone would elevate the issue. It elevates it far beyond the backbenchers who were advocating for it in past sessions."

Prioritizing something is one thing. Actually turning it into law is another. There are committees to clear. There's the two-thirds rule in the Senate, requiring two Democrats to agree before a bill is brought up for a vote. And there's the vocal contingent of activists who will be satisfied with nothing short of full-on, unrestricted constitutional carry.

Open Carry Texas founder CJ Grisham made himself quite clear on the latter point in a recent op-ed in the Texas Tribune, referring to the NRA and other mainline gun groups as "pro-gun elitists who believe our rights are subject to licensing."

Neither Cotton nor Tripp is opposed to constitutional carry per se. They just think it's unrealistic. Licensed Texas gun owners have a two-decade track record of carrying firearms safely. Doing away with licenses is a leap most lawmakers probably won't take, particularly with what looks to be armed militias occupying the neighborhood Chipotle.

"I can't tell you about public opinion," Cotton says. "What I can tell you is the impact in Austin is 100 percent negative. It's across-the-board negative."

The fact that the open-carry debate has generated so heated much heat puzzles Cook. What, after all, will really change if licensed gun owners are allowed to have a pistol on their hip rather than under their jacket? Not much. Under normal circumstances, he thinks the controversy would be relatively muted, particularly if those pushing it made it a local-option thing, with counties able to opt in or out as they choose.

"If everybody would just relax, it would all probably end up just fine," he says. "One side screaming that every little aspect of this issue is a constitutional right, the other side screaming that every little aspect of this issue is murdering innocents. Where is the room for honest cool-headed lawmaking in that?"

Tripp, too, longs for calm debate.

"I can't predict if a handful of selfish, self-centered, egocentric folks keep doing what they're doing and dampening the chances, maybe we don't," she says. "If those that have used good sense and good manners and good judgment for the last 20 past years do, and they write their legislators, maybe it is time."

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