On Friday, Gov. Greg Abbott declared a statewide state of disaster due to the spread of the coronavirus. This has raised many questions as to the impact on gun rights under House Bill 1177, passed by the legislature in 2019 and signed into law by the governor.
The bill lifts restrictions on the unlicensed, open carry of a handgun by Texans during times of evacuation during a state of disaster. Specifically, the bill states that Texas handgun restrictions do not apply to a person who carries a handgun while:
- Evacuating from an area following the declaration of a state of disaster; or
- Re-entering the area following the person’s evacuation.
The provisions only apply, however, for 168 hours following the governor’s disaster declaration unless the governor’s proclamation extends that period. It also does not apply to persons who are prohibited under state or federal law from possessing a firearm.
In short, this means that Texas will have a form of de facto constitutional carry for the next 168 hours. However, Texans should be cautious because what it means to “evacuate” or “re-enter following evacuation” is not well-defined. As a practical matter, it may be sufficient to show that the person was traveling from one place to another. Or, if accused of violating handgun laws, the person might need to show they were in the process of leaving the state entirely in order for the exception to the law to apply.
Gov. Abbott could extend the period under which HB 1177’s exception will apply, but it will ultimately be up to the courts to decide in which cases of evacuation the exception might apply.
Texans should proceed at their own legal risk. The default rule remains that carrying a handgun without a license remains a serious crime under state law.