AUSTIN -- Teaching class inside his Austin gun store, Central Texas Gun Works owner and instructor Michael Cargill regularly walks applicants through the process of becoming licensed to carry a concealed handgun.
"The current law in the state of Texas, you have to take a class," Cargill explained Wednesday. "It's four to six hours. You also have to pass a background check. You can have no felony convictions, no class A or B misdemeanor convictions in the last five years."
Long arms such as rifles and shotguns may be carried openly in Texas, but handguns are treated differently. Licensed and concealed is currently the only legal way for Texans to carry a handgun in public, but many gun rights activists would like the option of carrying the same handgun openly holstered.
It's called "open carrying," and supporters believe it would have a chilling effect on crime.
"When the person sees that gun, they know they should respect that person, and that I better not commit a crime or do something illegal or anything like that," said Cargill.
Lawmakers tried and failed to pass open carry legislation in 2013, and several bills have already been filed in advance of the 2015 legislative session. Governor-elect Greg Abbott included a proposal in his "We the People" campaign policy outline to allow concealed handgun license (CHL) holders to carry openly.
"An openly carried weapon is no more dangerous than one carried in a concealed manner," the outline states on page 14. "Indeed, it is those with bad intent who are most likely to prefer to conceal weapons on their person. Anyone wishing to use a firearm as a deterrent and, in the last resort, for self-defense, would prefer to openly display the weapon."
"Texas, as I understand it, is one of only about seven or so states in the United States of America that does not have open carry," Abbott told reporters during a media conference last week at the Texas Capitol. "If open carry is good enough for Massachusetts, it's good enough for the state of Texas. If an open carry bill is passed by the House and Senate and arrives at my desk, I will sign it into law."
The Eighty-fourth Texas Legislature will ultimately consider two very different versions of the proposed law. House Bill 106 by state Rep. Dan Flynn (R-Canton) would expand CHL policy to allow license holders to carry handguns either openly or concealed. House Bill 195 by state Rep. Jonathan Stickland (R-Bedford) would allow so-called "constitutional carry," in which anyone legally able to purchase a gun would be permitted to carry it in the open or concealed.
The Republican Party of Texas included a resolution in its 2014 party platform in support of making constitutional carry a priority in the upcoming session. Page 40 of the 2014 platform reads, "We call upon the 84th Texas Legislature to propose to the people of Texas a constitutional amendment to strike '; but the Legislature shall have power, by law, to regulate the wearing of
arms, with a view to prevent crime' from Article I, Section 23 of the Texas Constitution."
While Abbott has expressed support for licensed open carry, the debate at the Capitol could hinge in large part on financial interests. A pure constitutional carry law would eliminate the requirement for licenses, essentially putting thousands of CHL instructors out of business. Such a showdown would pit the interests of small businesses against those of ideological purists.
Any open carry legislation will face resistance from law enforcement. After recently meeting with a number of Texas chiefs of police to discuss the upcoming legislative session, Austin Police Chief Art Acevedo told KVUE that those he spoke with are strongly opposed to the measure.
"We don't need to go back to the Wild, Wild West," said Acevedo. Praising the state's CHL program as a model for the nation, Acevedo suggests open carry would needlessly undercut a program working well as intended. By surrendering the element of uncertainty and surprise, Acevedo warns those who carry openly as opposed to concealed could be the first targeted by criminals in an active situation.
"We still have not done a good job of keeping firearms only in the hands of law-abiding citizens of sound mind," added Acevedo, who argues the Second Amendment is best protected by improving upon that score.
The sentiment is echoed by Angela Turner, a gun owner and volunteer for Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, which advocates for better background checks. Turner points out that children at school are taught to react to an armed person as an emergency situation, and suggests the appearance of visibly armed people in other public places as a result of open carry laws would send conflicting signals.
"If someone's open carrying, I don't know as a mom whether that person has passed a background check, whether they have any training," said Turner. "Basically, I don't know if they're a good guy with a gun or a bad guy with a gun."
"What I'm hearing right now is it's not about if we're going to get an open carry bill passed, it's whether or not it's going to be constitutional carry or with a handgun license," said Cargill, who told KVUE he'll be satisfied with either outcome.
"There are 44 states that allow open carry of a handgun," said Cargill. "Those states do not have problems. I don't perceive Texas having any problems either."
Other firearm-related legislation has also been filed during the first week of pre-filing. House Bill 216 by state Rep. James White (R-Woodville) would lower the minimum age requirement for CHL holders to 18 from 21 years. House Bill 206 by state Rep. Jeff Leach (R-Plano) would designate the last weekend of August as a tax-free weekend for purchases of firearms and hunting supplies.