Gun law that heralds voters' shoot-out

Elaine Davenport reports on the mixed messages to those carrying a weapon
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The Independent Online
San Saba, Texas - "If you are licensed to carry concealed, it doesn't bother us, so come on in," says the sign on the front door of Poor Boys Restaurant, welcoming anyone toting a concealed weapon in this small town, 100 miles north-west of Austin. The sign is for customers who might eat somewhere else if they had to stash a pistol before they entered. It is in stark contrast to signs seen all over the state denying access to anyone who is "carrying", as it is called.

These mixed messages signal confusion over the state's concealed handgun law, which has been in effect since 1 January, 1996, and which is keeping the emotional shoot-out between gun control and gun rights advocates in front of voters as the 5 November election nears.

Any resident who has completed a 10-15 hour safety course, passed a background check and paid $140 can get a licence. As of 5 September, the state had issued 91,999 permits, or about 721 for every 100,000 Texas adults. Thirty other states also have concealed handgun laws.

Far from being the wild and woolly place that myth and movies paint, Texas is, in fact, wimpy when it comes to guns. Yes, I know this is heresy, and it is true that Texas has had a long and good relationship with guns. Some even would argue that guns have made Texas what it is today. Superior weaponry was the key to wresting independence from Mexico, and in pioneer days, guns meant food on the table and the firepower to overcome Indians.

But it is easy to forget that for over a century it was illegal to carry a pistol on your person in Texas. And the present gun laws, including the new concealed handgun law, are infamous for being complicated and confusing. By contrast, in Arizona, residents openly can carry a pistol on their hip.

The new law gives employers and businesses the right to decide whether or not to allow concealed guns on their private property: thus the contrasting signs on front doors. In fact, there are so many exceptions to where licence holders can carry a gun - schools, courtrooms, racetracks, airports, hospitals, churches, amusement parks, polling places, government courts and meetings, and a bar or other business deriving over half its revenue from alcohol sales - that even its proponents now say the law is flawed.

"It's a step in the right direction, but needs cleaning up," says Suzanna Gratia Hupp, a Republican running for the state legislature from this district and one of the state's best-known gun-rights advocates. "It's a shopping list for a crazy man."

Ms Hupp knows about crazy men. In 1991, she watched as George Hennard killed 23 people, including her parents, at a cafeteria in Killeen and then killed himself. She said if she had been carrying a gun, she might have stopped the massacre, the worst in American history. She campaigned to get the Texas law passed, and has travelled nationwide to press the same case.

She is also the current manifestation of the frontier lawman myth - that one good person, acting alone, embodying the all-American concepts of courage, independence and freedom, can act against overwhelming odds and cause good to triumph over evil.

Her Democratic opponent is in favour of gun control. But he would really like to dodge the issue altogether. He is concentrating on pocketbook issues to appeal to con- servative Texans who have abandoned the Democratic Party in droves in recent years. He knows that gun control is as emotional as abortion rights, and even though polls may show that most agree with him, talking about those hot issues will not get him elected.

Opponents of the new "carry" law said passage would lead to increased violence. In June, two fatal shootings and 13 incidents have involved license holders, but it is too early to draw conclusions. Gun rights advocates are looking to the state legislature, which meets again in January 1997, to deal with the confusion over signs and to trim the list of off- limits places. Gun control advocates want more extensive training.