Listening to the four Republicans running for lieutenant governor, one might think they’re campaigning for sheriff rather than the leader of the state Senate.
Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and his three challengers for the GOP nomination all own and carry concealed handguns, and they talk tough on crime and easy on the Second Amendment. Two have even raffled off guns as part of their campaign activities.
The reason for all the pistol talk so far, say political observers, is Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson, who is currently running third in political contributions and widely considered to be a wild card in the high-profile race.
“Gun rights are so big because of Patterson,” said Mark Jones, chairman of Rice University’s political science department and a longtime observer of Texas politics. “There’s no difference between any of the four on Second Amendment rights, but everybody’s trying to get ahead of Patterson, who’s Mr. Gun because he passed the concealed-handgun law.”
Patterson authored the state law that allows Texans to carry concealed handguns as long as they obtain a state permit.
While campaign insiders insist that Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples and state Sen. Dan Patrick aren’t concerned about losing the primary to Patterson, “they’re worried about losing votes to him” in a primary that could knock them out of a runoff, Jones said.
To outsiders, the gun-friendly race for Texas’ No. 2 elective office so far might appear a bit odd. For example, Patterson is scheduled to appear this weekend at a “Clinging to Our God and Guns” fundraiser for a conservative group in Luling.
But for Texas, guns have long been prominent in campaigns, with everyone from former Democratic Gov. Ann Richards to current GOP Gov. Rick Perry making certain to be photographed in a deer blind or on a shooting range during campaign season.
“There are some very easy dog-whistle ways to communicate with the Republican primary electorate in Texas, and gun rights are one of them,” said Cal Jilson, a political science professor at Southern Methodist University in Dallas who has followed Texas politics for years. “It’s sort of like rounding first base in a campaign, and gun rights are first base. … That’s what you’re seeing here. This (issue) probably wouldn’t go over in other states, but it’s important here in Texas.”
Dewhurst and his challengers have been championing their gun rights support on the stump, on their websites and in videos. And their supporters have quietly suggested that the other guys have weak spots on the issue — didn’t someone support background checks at gun shows, or was someone else not vigorous enough in criticizing the Obama administration’s moves to restrict ownership?
Dewhurst pushed hard during the legislative session last spring for a record number of pro-gun bills — shortening the training time for concealed-handgun licenses, allowing more concealed weapons in more places, even the controversial campus-carry bill to allow handguns in college classrooms — which failed to pass in the face of opposition from police and university officials.
“Leave our guns alone,” Dewhurst says in an open letter on his campaign website.
Staples is no less adamant. His campaign website and videos tout his support of the Second Amendment with photos of him at a gun shop and holding a shotgun, noting he has a top “A” rating from the National Rifle Association.
Noting he was "one of the very first concealed handgun licensees in Texas and a committed defender of the Second Amendment," Staples said Texans "understand the Second Amendment is necessary to defend our rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
"As we've seen in Colorado just this week, if lawmakers try to infringe on our Second Amendment rights and take away our guns, we will take away their jobs," he said.
For Patrick, an outspoken supporter of Second Amendment rights since he came to the state Senate in 2007, gun rights are listed on his website as one of his key issues. Like the others, he has noted that he often carries a concealed weapon.
“In Texas, gun rights are something that’s important to a majority of Texans … something you don’t get a lot of push-back from Democrats either,” said Allen Blakemore, Patrick’s campaign consultant. “This was one of the principles of our founding fathers. It’s a cultural thing in Texas, in the South and Southwest. We like our guns.”
For Patterson guns are part of his political DNA. He has been a leading voice for guns rights since he authored the state’s concealed-handgun law in 1995. His website says he will support passage of campus carry, allowing concealed weapons in more places, repeal “useless” gun laws, placing armed personnel in schools to ensure students’ safety and that he will oppose any regulation or registration of firearms by “local, state or federal governments.”
Ever since assault rifles were banned during the 1994 administration of Democratic President Bill Clinton, gun rights awareness has increased nationally, especially in Southern states where firearms are more a part of the culture than in other areas.
In Texas, firearms have been a part of campaigns for years — Perry bragged during his presidential campaign two years ago about shooting a coyote with his concealed handgun to protect his dog, and Ann Richards went dove hunting in the 1990s to prove she was gun friendly.
As the campaign for lieutenant governor heats up in advance of the March 4 primaries, so have the gun references. Dewhurst earlier this year brushed off Patterson’s challenge to his re-election bid with “I have more guns that he does,” and he has noted repeatedly that the state Senate under his leadership passed 17 pro-gun bills — likely a record.
Patterson says he’s not worried: “On support for the Second Amendment, I’m pretty sure none of them can outgun me.”
CORRECTION: A quote from Todd Staples was missing from an earlier version on this story.
Gun politics in other states
After last year’s mass shootings, Colorado was the only state beyond the Democratic strongholds of New York, California and Connecticut to pass gun control legislation. Gun control measures died in Congress, as well as in Minnesota, Oregon, Washington and Delaware.
Recall votes in Colorado: Democratic voters Tuesday helped remove two Democratic state senators who had voted for tighter gun control — an ouster that was seen as both intensely local and as a national test of what can happen to lawmakers who support gun restrictions in battleground states.
Guns in schools in Arkansas: A state board voted Wednesday to allow 13 school districts to continue using teachers, administrators and other staff as armed guards, despite a warning from the Arkansas attorney general that the licensing law they relied upon was intended for private businesses.
— Associated Press