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Texans No Longer Need A Permit To Carry A Handgun. How We Got Here – And What Worries Law Enforcement.

  Gun owners without a handgun license will be able to legally carry in Texas starting Sep. 1.
Florian Martin
Houston Public Media
Gun owners without a handgun license will be able to legally carry in Texas starting Sep. 1.

After several mass shootings in Texas, some Republican leaders — including Gov. Greg Abbott — pledged to try to prevent another incident from happening again. But stricter gun laws did not come out of the 2021 legislative session.

Texans who want to carry a handgun — either openly or concealed — can now do so without a license. The state's new permitless carry law is in effect here as of Sept. 1

The law applies to anyone 21 and older who can legally carry a firearm. Texans who qualify no longer have to be fingerprinted, undergo a background check, complete a training or pass written and shooting-proficiency tests in order to get a permit to carry a handgun.

The new law does not apply to long guns like rifles. There are no licensing requirements for carrying those in Texas.

And while the new law eliminates the background check for a permit to carry in Texas, it does not get rid of the background check necessary when buying a gun from a federally licensed dealer.

New gun laws were expected after several mass shootings in Texas, including incidents about two years ago in El Paso and Midland-Odessa. Some Republican leaders, including Gov. Greg Abbott, pledged legislation to prevent shootings like those from happening again. But stricter gun measures did not come out of the most recent legislative session.

The Texas Tribune's primary political correspondent, Patrick Svitek, says "this legislative session we saw lawmakers go in the totally opposite direction and continue to loosen gun restrictions in Texas." He describes this new permitless carry law as the "the exclamation point on that trajectory in the opposite direction of the kind of action that was pledged after some of these recent mass shootings."

Listen to the interview with Svitek above or read the transcript below for more on Texas' new permitless carry law, including law enforcement concerns about not being able to know whether a person who's carrying a gun has had the "right training."

This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:

KUT: What are the provisions of the new law that goes into effect Sept. 1? What does it actually do?

Patrick Svitek: The law that's going into effect gets rid of the requirements that Texans who want to carry a handgun have to get a license to do so, whether it be open or concealed. Currently, Texans are mostly required to be licensed to carry handguns whether they are open or concealed. And to get that license, applicants have to submit fingerprints; to go through a background check; they have to complete four to six hours of training; and they have to pass a written exam and shooting-proficiency test.

This new law gets rid of all that and allows anyone 21 years or older to carry a handgun in public without the need for that permit or that training or that background check as long as they aren't otherwise prohibited from carrying a firearm under law, such as having a felony or domestic violence conviction.

So no training, no paperwork. As long as they're legally allowed to purchase a gun, they can carry a gun in Texas?

Yeah, that is mostly true. And it's important to note when it comes to the background check, because I think there's been a little bit of misinformation around this. This law does not touch purchase or ownership requirements when it comes to guns in Texas. I think people are most concerned about what this means for background checks in Texas. This does not change the fact that anyone who buys a gun in Texas from a federally licensed dealer still has to go through the FBI background check.

Now, we know that not everyone who is buying a gun in Texas is buying it through a federally licensed arms dealer. There are certainly background check loopholes that still exist. For example, a sale between private parties right now, just between two friends or two family members, for example. Those kinds of sales aren't covered by background checks.

But it is important to note that when it comes to this law that's going into effect, it is only getting rid of the background check that in some ways was an additional layer of peace of mind and security. But it's not getting rid of that background check that's still required at the point of sale if you are buying a gun from a federally licensed gun dealer in Texas.

The idea of permitless carry is not new to the political landscape in Texas, but what brought about its passage now? Why did this happen in 2021 as opposed to any of the other times?

“Constitutional carry,” as its supporters call it at least, has been a priority of some conservative activists — including some on the fringes of the party — for several years now. This is an issue that really, despite some of the energy on the right around this issue, that really never made it that far in the Legislature. It was often stopped by the concerns of the law enforcement community. It really divided Republicans because of that.

In this most recent regular legislative session, it broke through very quickly, honestly, in a way that I think some people not did not see coming. In the middle of this regular legislative session, the new House Speaker Dade Phelan, who's been a supporter of this proposal in the past, allowed it to get to the floor and it passed pretty decisively, even with some Democratic votes.

And so the law that is going into effect right now really can be traced back to the election of this new speaker who supported the proposal as a House member and then his decision to let it reach the floor of the House. And then after that, it was really — I wouldn't say on a glide path to the governor's desk — but there was really some mostly unstoppable momentum behind it at that point.

It really became suddenly a political hot potato for the Senate, where the lieutenant governor, Dan Patrick, who presides over the Senate, had also had some reservations about it due to law enforcement concerns. But when it came out of the House, that put a lot of political pressure on the Senate to act on this. And the lieutenant governor, to his credit in the eyes of supporters of this legislation, was able to find a way to at least soften some of the law enforcement opposition and get it through the Senate and gather the votes for it.

Some of the tweaks that were made to this bill to satisfy the concerns of law enforcement included a requirement that the Texas Department of Public Safety offer a free online training course. That's free and voluntary, but it certainly addressed some of the concerns, at least, that you're getting totally rid of any training for a Texan who may want it once they are carrying a gun. One other key change for the law enforcement community was getting rid of a provision that was in the House version of this bill that would have banned police officers from questioning a person based solely on their carrying of a gun.

Even with those changes, does law enforcement still have concerns with permitless carry in Texas?

Yeah, even with those changes there are certainly law enforcement associations and groups, particularly in the major metropolitan areas, who are still uneasy about the environment that this creates, not being able to know ... whether a person has the right training, has for sure passed a background check. And so I think for them, it introduces an element of uncertainty that remains troubling even after some of these amendments.

How do state leaders square this legislation in 2021 given what's happened in the past few years in Texas? Just a little over two years ago, there was a mass shooting in El Paso. Twenty-three people were killed. Also, about two years ago, there was a shooting spree in Midland and Odessa. How do state lawmakers square those events in Texas with this legislation now?

Well, they don't really. I haven't seen any public explanation for why they chose to go in this direction so decisively at odds with some of the comments that they were making after these recent mass shootings. We saw even from Republican leaders — we saw some discussion of pursuing red flag laws. We even saw some discussion, including from the lieutenant governor, of pursuing background checks on those stranger-to-stranger, private gun sales that we just discussed that are currently not covered by background checks.

But instead, this legislative session we saw lawmakers go in the totally opposite direction and continue to loosen gun restrictions in Texas. And this permitless carry passage was really the exclamation point on that trajectory in the opposite direction of the kind of action that was pledged after some of these recent mass shootings.

Of course, in this case you can argue that the Republican leadership is being more responsive to their voters, who are more likely to support these things than to a broader electorate. Of course, they're tasked with representing more than just their voters and the members of their party. They’re tasked with representing all voters. But clearly, I think in this case, at least when it comes to something like permitless carry they’re being much more responsive to the voters inside the GOP.

Got a tip? Email Jennifer Stayton at jstayton@kut.org. Follow her on Twitter @jenstayton.

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I feel very lucky to have been born and raised right here in Austin, Texas. An English teacher at my high school, St. Stephen’s Episcopal School, once suggested to the class that we tune in to KUT 90.5 for Paul Ray’s “Twine Time.” I have been a public radio fan ever since.