AUSTIN, Texas — People showing up armed to protests or rallies outside of the Texas State Capitol or around Downtown Austin isn't a new headline these days, as many protests in the last year have had at least some arrive carrying firearms.
"My main inspiration is that there is a tremendous amount of distrust of government these days and a tremendous amount of distrust of one another. And in that environment, I really want us to get to a place where we, we trust our government and we trust each other so much that we no longer feel a need to bear arms individually," Eckhardt told KVUE Monday. "But until that day, I want to make sure that individuals who bear arms are bearing it purely for defensive reasons and not for offensive reasons to, to threaten others, particularly when others are attempting to, to specifically engage, whether their elected officials or whether they are other protesters."
While Eckhardt is hopeful that the bill can progress through the Texas Legislature, some say it's unlikely.
Senate Bill 311, explained
"Currently, it is against the law to display a firearm in a public place with the intention of alarming people. But that has, that provision has come under scrutiny because people argue against it in a right-to-carry state, but it's confusing," Eckhardt said. "So, we wanted to make sure that we clarified that both for the bearer of arms but also for law enforcement, that to display a firearm in a protest or within 500 feet of a public protest is intended to alarm."
According to the introduced version of the bill, a "public demonstration" is defined as a place where one or more people are "demonstrating, picketing, speechmaking, marching, holding a vigil, or engaging in any other similar conduct that involves the communication or expression of views or grievances and that has the effect, intent, or propensity to attract a crowd or onlookers."
The measure adds to existing law that already makes it illegal to use profane language, to use offensive gestures, use chemical or noxious odors, to make threats or unreasonable noise, to fight, to discharge a firearm, and to expose his or her genitals, in a public place, among other restrictions.
It's important to note that Texas law currently allows licensed-to-carry persons on Capitol grounds and inside the Capitol. Licensed people may carry their guns concealed or open carry in a holster and must carry their licenses on them.
Overall, Eckhardt believes that this legislation could help make demonstrations safer.
"A person should not fear for their lives in their attempt to engage civically. We should never get to a place where people are fearful for their lives, simply in their attempts to be heard by the power in their city or in their state or in their country," Eckhardt said. "The democracy is the people. And when the people are afraid to, to speak, democracy dies."
Additionally, Eckhardt referenced the shooting death of Black Lives Matter protester Garrett Foster last summer.
In an update the day after the 28-year-old died, Austin Police Chief Brian Manley said reports indicated Foster was carrying a rifle when he approached the suspect's vehicle. The suspect then shot out of their car at Foster, according to APD. Manley said that the person who shot Foster called 911 to report that someone had pointed a gun at his vehicle and that he fired at the person pointing the gun.
A memorial was eventually formed by Foster's supporters at the site of the shooting.
"I completely understand people, particularly in the Black Lives Matter movement, and they're, they're concerned that their right to protest was not going to be protected by law enforcement. And I believe that that was what, what precipitated that tragic event," Eckhardt said. "Hopefully through this legislation, it would prevent anyone from bearing arms during a protest and level up the playing field so that we wouldn't have those sorts of tragedies again and by happenstance, but certainly in retrospect, in a timely way. This bill was filed on the same day as we saw an insurrection in the U.S. Capitol."
If passed, the bill would take effect on Sept. 1, 2021.
Opposition to the bill
KVUE reached out to the group Texas Gun Rights for comment on Senate Bill 311. While they were not available for an interview Monday, Executive Director Chris McNutt said the group opposes the bill.
"We oppose SB 311 and any other bill that would further restrict the Second Amendment rights of law-abiding Texans," McNutt said. "That’s why Texas Gun Rights is focused on making Texas the 17th Constitutional Carry state in 2021, removing barriers for law-abiding citizens to carry their lawfully possessed firearms."
Travis County Republican Party Communications Director Andy Hogue told KVUE that he doesn't believe the bill would progress in a gun-friendly state like Texas.
"It's not a checklist where you can only pick one and do one at a time. Your freedom of speech is constitutionally protected along with your Second Amendment freedoms," he said. "We've done nothing but make progress on gun rights since the concealed carry bill was passed in the '90s. And I don't see that ever changing."
He added that he believes there should be different legislation brought to the table or that this particular legislation should be more "wide-reaching."
"We would expect more wide-reaching legislation that talks about the entire situation, not just recent events. This kind of grandstanding really doesn't do well in the Senate. And I don't think it'll really see the light of day outside of committee," Hogue said. "The Senate should be the, the upper chamber that looks at the bills a little more carefully and proposes a more refined legislation. And something designed just to make a temporary political point really doesn't have a place in the halls of the Senate."
On Tuesday, Rep. Vikki Goodwin (District 47) announced she filed a similar bill, HB 791, in the Texas House of Representatives.
“I believe strongly in the First Amendment rights of citizens to exercise their freedom of speech and to petition their government,” said Rep. Goodwin. “But the US Constitution states clearly that the people have the right to assemble ‘peaceably.’ If the threat of protesters carrying guns can shut down the Texas State Capitol for nearly a week, then we need to do more to ensure that such demonstrations remain nonviolent.”
How the bill could fare this session
To better understand how some experts feel this bill could fare during the legislative session, KVUE spoke to James Henson, the director of the Texas Politics Project.
"I think it's unlikely that this bill gets very far in a Republican-dominated legislature at a time that we've not seen any evidence that even given the sight of armed protests at the U.S. Capitol, the insurrection at the, at the U.S. Capitol ... we've not seen many signs that the attitudes among Republican elected officials are shifting significantly and that they're rethinking their position on Second Amendment issues. And in Texas, this will be seen primarily as a Texas amendment issue, and I'd be surprised if it went very far," Henson said.
"It is something that flags what a lot of Democrats will see as a problem right now and as an unnecessary part of the public protests that we've seen not only in recent weeks, but in recent years," Henson added. "But I think given the, the political tenor of the legislature right now and the Republican read of their, their constituents, particularly primary voters, this is unlikely to, to go very far in this legislature."
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