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Texas Senate Approves Open Carry, And Restrictions On Police Stopping Gun Owners Without Cause

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AUSTIN — Texas took a major step toward allowing the licensed open carry of handguns, with Senate approval coming late Friday night after a fierce debate over restricting police powers to ask people carrying guns if they are legal. The open carry bill was expected to easily pass the Republican-majority chamber but got tangled in a bipartisan move to add a ban on police from stopping people solely because they are visibly carrying a handgun.

The vote came less than a week after a biker shootout in Waco killed nine, an incident that was raised several times in the debate.

The bill still needs a final vote in the House, which passed a nearly identical version last month. Republican Gov. Greg Abbott has pledged to sign an open carry bill into law. Supporters of the police restriction came from both sides of the aisle, Democrats who thought it would prevent harassment of law-abiding citizens and racial profiling of minorities, and Tea Party-backed conservatives and libertarians who thought it would protect against the unreasonable search and seizure of licensed handgun owners. 

“If somebody is going to be profiled for walking around the streets of Houston or Austin with a gun, someone who looks like me is more likely to get stopped,” said Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, who is black.

Law enforcement groups argue police should be allowed to determine who is legally carrying a handgun. Several lawmakers noted the Waco shootout, where authorities said they rounded up more than 300 weapons, and worried the ban would lead to felons and those with mental health issues carrying guns without fear of getting caught.

"This is a mistake, and I think it's a mistake the state of Texas will come to regret," said Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston. Huffman, a former prosecutor and judge, added: “This is just a backdoor to constitutional carry, because, really, any person could just carry a gun without a license because they know the police can’t inquire of them if they have a license.”

Sen. Don Huffines, the Dallas Republican who amended the bill, said he was protecting law-abiding gun owners from unreasonable searches by police.

The provision, which eventually passed, saw strong cross-party voting: Huffman, expectedly, voted against the provision, as did bill sponsor Craig Estes of Wichita Falls. Jacksonville’s Robert Nichols and New Braunfels’ vocal Sen. Donna Campbell all thought it was not fair on the police or law enforcement agencies but to no avail. Huffines had the support of six Democrats besides Ellis. San Antonio’s Carlos Uresti, Royce West of Dallas, José Rodriguez of El Paso, Houston’s Sylvia Garcia, Chuy Hinojosa of McAllen, and Eddie Lucio of Brownsville. 

Open carry advocates, including Abbott, have pushed the bill as an important gun rights and self-defense measure. Gun control advocates and police in the state's largest cities have concerns about public safety.

Before the open carry debate, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who presides over the Senate, said House leaders also promised to pass a bill allowing concealed handguns in college classrooms.

A spokesman for House Speaker Joe Straus confirmed the campus carry bill would get a vote before the session ends June 1.

Texas has allowed concealed handguns since 1995 but is one of only six states with an outright ban on open carry. Texas has banned open carry for 140 years, a prohibition dating to the post-Civil War era that disarmed former Confederate soldiers and freed slaves.

The state has nearly 850,000 concealed handgun license holders under a process that requires classroom and gun range training, although lawmakers have lowered those standards in recent years.

Texas also allows the public display of long guns, such as rifles and shotguns, and open carry advocates have staged high-profile rallies at the Alamo and state Capitol. Concealed handguns are allowed inside the Capitol, where license holders can bypass metal detectors. (AP)