Legislature preparing for another round of gun bills

After a heated legislative session dominated by bills allowing handguns to be carried openly in public or concealed in many college buildings, the 2017 Legislature is thus far looking at more modest Republican efforts to expand gun rights in Texas.

The wild card will be a bill by state Rep. Jonathan Stickland, R-Bedford, that would allow anyone to carry a legally owned firearm without having to obtain a state-issued license to carry it — a proposal known as constitutional carry.

Stickland has said Texans shouldn’t be forced to take a government-mandated safety course, and pay a licensing fee, to exercise a constitutional right guaranteed by the Second Amendment.

However, there wasn’t much appetite for constitutional carry in the 2015 session, when a similar bill by Stickland generated some of the session’s most polarized debate over guns but didn’t get a committee hearing — the first step in the process of moving a bill forward.

Instead, gun rights advocates concentrated on eliminating Texas’ status as one of only six states that barred gun owners from openly carrying handguns. Open carry, which passed the Legislature in 2015 with overwhelming Republican support, went into effect Jan. 1, 2016, allowing those with a license to carry to openly display handguns in a hip or shoulder holster.

RELATED: Bill filing begins, setting stage for 2017 Legislature

The 2015 success of open carry, as well as the law allowing concealed handguns in college campus buildings, could limit the appeal of Stickland’s House Bill 375 when the Legislature begins its 140-day run on Jan. 10, said state Rep. Matt Krause, R-Fort Worth, a co-author of Stickland’s constitutional carry bill last session.

“When you take care of something one session, there can be a little hesitation to come back and do something big next session,” Krause said. “At the same time, I don’t think Texans’ passion for gun rights has lessened. It’s still a debate worth having, so even if we can’t get constitutional carry this time, we can pass some other measures that may not be as glamorous but can still send a strong message that the Texas Legislature is looking to preserve that right.”

Constitutional carry, he said, “is not out of the realm of possibility, but maybe the more likely scenario is more incremental change.”

Republican proposals

Since bill filing began in mid-November, other proposed gun laws include:

Senate Bill 16 by state Sen. Robert Nichols, R-Jacksonville, would eliminate fees to obtain a license to carry, which costs $140 with a $70 renewal fee, although there are discounts for judges, senior citizens, police officers, military veterans and others.

The bill is one of Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick’s priorities, and similar legislation has been filed by Rep. Dustin Burrows, R-Lubbock (House Bill 339).

“Texas currently has one of the highest license to carry fees in the country, and we will fix that,” Patrick said.

• Rep. Dan Flynn, R-Canton, wants to let firefighters, emergency medical crews and other first responders carry handguns on the job (House Bill 56), while Rep. Dan Huberty, R-Houston, hopes to allow school trustees and superintendents to carry open or concealed handguns during school board meetings (House Bill 356).

• Similar bills by Sen. Bob Hall, R-Edgewood, Rep. Mark Keough, R-The Woodlands, and Krause would bar state agencies from enforcing any federal law that imposes restrictions on firearms, ammunition and accessories not found in state law, including background check and registration requirements (House Bills 99 and 110, Senate Bill 93).

The bills were inspired by a 1997 Supreme Court ruling that said, in part, that the U.S. government cannot compel states to enforce federal law, Krause said.

• Hall also wants to prohibit doctors, other than psychiatrists, from asking patients if a firearm “is located or stored” at their home or other property (Senate Bill 104).

• Sen. Charles Perry, R-Lubbock, and Rep. Drew Springer, R-Muenster, propose removing the requirement that gun owners use nothing smaller than a .32-caliber pistol for the handgun proficiency shooting test to qualify for a license to carry (Senate Bill 263, House Bill 403).

Democratic proposals

Some of the bills by Texas Democrats seek to improve gun safety, including House Bill 111 by Rep. Joe Moody of El Paso, which would cut license fees for gun owners who can prove that they own a locked safe, cabinet or case for gun storage.

Moody’s bill, which also would require the Department of Public Safety to create educational programs on secure storage and safe gun handling, is a priority for Texas Gun Sense, which seeks policies designed to reduce gun violence and injuries.

“We want to address the issue of the 3,500 people who are killed or injured by gun violence every year in Texas,” Andrea Brauer, executive director of Texas Gun Sense, said Thursday during a news conference on the Capitol’s south steps. “It does not have to be a Republican or Democrat issue, and we shouldn’t have to choose sides.”

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Rep. Donna Howard, D-Austin, hopes to ban guns from state psychiatric hospitals (House Bill 392).

“I think if we just used some common sense, we’d recognize that’s not exactly a place where we should be having weaponry,” Howard said during Thursday’s Capitol news conference.

Some Democratic bills seek changes that were previously rejected by the majority Republicans in both chambers, including House Bill 391 by Howard, which would let public universities opt out of the campus carry law that went into effect in August. The law only lets private colleges opt out — an acknowledgement, Republicans have said, of the importance of private property rights.

Rep. Rafael Anchia, D-Dallas, wants to give cities with at least 750,000 residents the ability to vote on ending open carry in city limits (House Bill 466) and allow businesses to ban firearms by displaying a photo of a circled handgun with a line through it instead of the large, wordy sign now required by law (House Bill 246).

Bills can be filed through March 10.

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