Bee Moorhead is executive director of Texas Interfaith Center for Public Policy/Texas Impact.
When the 84th Legislature passed House Bill 910 — also known as “open carry” — national media highlighted Texas’ reversal of its quaint “post-Civil War era” open carry prohibition. In fact, Texas lawmakers have grappled with the presence of guns in society consistently and thoughtfully since Reconstruction. Now, as Texas prepares to implement HB 910, simplified and polarizing rhetoric is preventing businesses, local governments and others from the serious discussions needed to protect all Texans.
According to an article in the 1982 St. Mary’s Law Journal, Texas’ earliest firearms regulation — passed on Nov. 6, 1866 — prohibited carrying weapons on other people’s property without the owner’s express consent. In 1870, lawmakers expanded the prohibition to include “any public assembly, function or election.”
In 1871, lawmakers created the offense of “unlawful carry.” HB 115 of the 12th Texas Legislature prohibited the possession of pistols by anyone except police officers, travelers, and individuals on their own property. Even the bill’s committee opponents felt they had to explain their opposition, saying “While we are in favor of a rigid law on the subject, we are not in favor of this bill.” The bill was challenged, but upheld as constitutional in 1872.
In the ensuing 40 years, legislative activity around firearms focused principally on penalty policy. HB 51 (1887), SB 3 (1889), HB 54 (1897), and HB 47 (1905) all tinkered with the penalties for unlawful carry. In 1913, lawmakers adopted HB 102, which would have made unlawful carry a felony. HB 102 was vetoed, but only because another bill, HB 137, creating a new offense of assault with a prohibited weapon, passed and was signed instead. HB 156 (1915) updated penalties for carrying in church as well as other locations.
In 1921, then-Governor Pat Neff vetoed Senate Bill 45, which would have lifted restrictions on the sale of pistols in Texas. In his veto message, Neff acknowledged that all but two members of the Senate had voted for the bill. Nevertheless, he argued that the sale of pistols in Texas would encourage crime and, more important, threaten human life, saying: “Man is the masterpiece of the world. He lives a life sublime and dies a death immortal. No legislation should be had that will encourage or make easy the taking of human life. It should be made as difficult as possible for one man to kill another. For this reason there has long been a law in the state that prohibits the carrying of a pistol. It has been, also, for many years, against the law in Texas to sell a pistol.”
Neff wasn’t able to prevent sale of pistols for long — in 1931 the 42nd Legislature passed HB 514, easing restricting on the in-state sale of pistols. But the passage of HB 514 did not signal a larger sea change in Texas gun policy. In 1933, lawmakers passed HB 64, which completely prohibited the possession of machine guns and made it a felony punishable by 2-10 years in prison. The bill predates the National Firearms Act of 1934.
Starting Jan. 1, 2016, people across the state will confront two sights no living Texan has ever seen. First, they will see civilians legally openly carrying handguns — in stores, theaters, parks, churches, and pretty much anywhere else they can think to carry them. Second, they will see signs posted conspicuously at the entrances to many establishments that ban open carrying of handguns on those premises, reminding all who enter that Texas’ long conversation about loaded weapons in public places is far from over.