Licensed gun owners can now bring their firearms into Texas’ 10 state psychiatric hospitals.
Until this year, guns were banned at the state-run facilities, which house people with serious mental illnesses. No one — visitors, delivery people and the like — could bring firearms anywhere on the hospitals’ campuses. Even local law enforcement officers, who were allowed to bring their weapons into the facilities, regularly lock up their guns before entering Austin State Hospital out of an abundance of caution. That isn’t expected to change.
But state officials say two new laws made it clear to them that they can’t keep guns off the hospitals’ campuses. The open carry law allows gun license holders to openly carry their firearms. A second law fines state agencies for wrongly hanging “no guns” signs.
Still, hospital officials aren’t encouraging anyone to bring their guns with them.
“While licensed visitors are legally permitted to carry on our hospital campuses, our patients are being actively treated for psychiatric conditions, and generally it’s best not to expose them to weapons of any kind,” said Carrie Williams, spokeswoman for the Department of State Health Services.
News that the state’s firearm ban at the hospitals had been lifted, first reported by the American-Statesman, caused concern both from opponents of the new gun laws and from the state’s biggest gun rights supporters.
“Good God,” said state Rep. Celia Israel, D-Austin, who was against the open carry gun law.
Terry Holcomb, founder and executive director of Texas Carry, joined other gun rights activists in saying that the state is wrong to blame the open carry law for allowing guns on the hospital campuses. The activists say even before that law, license holders were free to take their guns on those campuses and that the state’s ban at the psychiatric hospitals was an illegal infringement on gun owners’ rights.
State officials insist they were allowed to prohibit firearms by hanging up signs, an assertion Holcomb insists is “flat out incorrect.”
Nevertheless, Holcomb said no legislation was ever meant to bring armed people into psychiatric wards.
“Nobody would have asked for that,” he said. “It’s not something we ever would have considered. Ever.”
The psychiatric hospital gun issue comes at a time when Texans are just beginning to use a new law allowing those with a gun license to carry firearms in a holster without concealing them. Supporters say it will enhance public safety, though studies they have cited fall short of proving that to be fact. Opponents maintain that it will create an atmosphere of intimidation.
Although previously existing law does ban guns in state-licensed general and specialty hospitals, the prohibition doesn’t include the 10 psychiatric hospitals because they aren’t licensed by the state. So while the new law doesn’t specifically forbid the weapons at the hospitals, state health officials believe guns are now allowed on those campuses. That includes some areas of buildings where patients live.
Employees are still prohibited from bringing guns to work.
This week, Austin State Hospital pulled down its signs banning guns. The facility is hanging new ones asking people to leave their firearms safely in their cars or to conceal them while they are on the Guadalupe Street property.
State Rep. Matt Rinaldi, R-Irving, supports the new law and said he doesn’t have a problem with legally obtained and licensed guns in the hospitals.
“It’s the responsibility of the operators of the facilities to ensure that the patients are not around dangerous weapons,” he said.
Gov. Greg Abbott’s office didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment.
During the legislative session, Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, offered an amendment to the open carry law that would have added the state hospitals to the list of places deemed gun-free zones. It was a logical move because it filled a gap in the law, said Watson, who opposed open carry.
It took just a few minutes for the amendment to die after Sen. Craig Estes, R-Wichita Falls, asked the Senate to postpone the issue and study it later.
“It is my goal to neither increase nor decrease anyplace a gun can be carried, so respectfully I move to table,” said Estes, who supported open carry. The amendment died.
Estes didn’t respond to a request for comment. Watson said he thinks the amendment collapsed because lawmakers were afraid of derailing the open carry bill by slowing it down with amendments.
“There was very little room for negotiation, and this is one of those unintended consequences when you are thinking about getting to the end zone,” she said.
On state psychiatric hospital property, visitors typically meet with patients in rooms adjacent to units where residents live. Those visits are either monitored or staffers are nearby, Williams said. People, usually friends and family, can also enter the building to attend meetings, participate in therapy or do other things.
Beth Mitchell with Disability Rights Texas — a federally funded organization that advocates for people with mental illness — says allowing people to bring guns on a psychiatric hospital campus “makes no sense.”
“I don’t know who concocted this idea, who thought this would be a rational policy for the state of Texas,” she said. “It’s only going to going to create fear among the patients themselves.”
Alcohol and tobacco are still banned from the hospitals’ campuses.
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to clarify that open-carry firearms must be holstered.