With the groundwork laid for Second Amendment issues during the 84th Texas Legislature, the stage was set for a potentially productive session for gun rights, as long as advocates were able to successfully navigate a stormy sea of process.
Newly christened as priority legislation by Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, licensed open carry moved rather expediently through the Senate in the form of SB 17 by State Sen. Craig Estes (R-Wichita Falls). The bill never could have moved without the reform of the dreaded 2/3 rule. Under the rule, Democrats enjoyed an effective veto on conservative legislation in the Senate.
A major procedural hurdle, the rule required a senator to gain the support of 2/3 of his colleagues to even bring a bill to the floor for debate. With Democrats controlling 11 seats in the Senate, even a united Republican caucus would have to bring along a Democrat in order to pass a bill. In past sessions, the rule provided cover for liberal Republicans who would support grassroots issues publicly only to ask their Democrat colleagues to kill the legislation privately. With the rule reformed, liberal Republicans opposed to preserving Second Amendment rights would have to fight the bill publicly and face the ire of conservative voters.
When licensed open carry arrived on the floor of the Senate it prompted an entire day of Democratic outcry, but ultimately passed. It was amended on the floor, however, by State Sen. Joan Huffman (R-Houston) to explicitly exclude college campuses. When State Sen. Brian Birdwell’s (R-Waco) campus carry legislation came up only days later, Huffman amended that legislation to exclude open carry on college campuses as well.
The amendments perhaps should have signaled that Huffman, a former prosecutor and the chair of the Senate State Affairs Committee, was considerably hostile to expanding Second Amendment rights.
Though both Senate bills passed the upper chamber early in the session, they languished in the House. Like other conservative priorities sent to the House by the Senate, the two pro-gun bills sat on Speaker Straus’ desk for more than two months without being referred to a committee. Straus also set up another road block by appointing “Panic Button Poncho” Nevarez (D-Eagle Pass) as vice-chair of the Public Safety Committee through which the bills would eventually be routed.
Despite the obvious obstruction by the Speaker, both the House versions of licensed open carry and concealed carry began being heard a week later in the Public Safety committee. Chairman Larry Phillips (R-Sherman), the House sponsor of the open carry legislation, conducted the hearings jointly in a marathon of testimony that featured a sharp divide in Texans and university campuses.
On the issue of campus carry, Pro-Second Amendment groups united against Moms Demand Action, but splintered on other issues, with some pushing for compromise and others pushing for bolder strategy. A schism also formed between state’s two flagship universities. University of Texas Chancellor McRaven sought to stop campus carry laws from being passed while his counterpart at Texas A&M, John Sharp, offered his personal support on the side of students.
Even the student governments of the two universities opposed one another, with UT forming a coalition with other universities against campus carry while the Aggies stood alone in favor.
Ultimately the Public Safety Committee passed both House bills on to Calendars, where open carry was moved relatively quickly while campus carry languished.
As notoriously liberal State Rep. Jason Villalba (R–Dallas) noted, the Calendars Committee serves Straus and provides a pretty clear snapshot of his views on legislation.
“On Calendars, [Straus] has appointed his closest (allies). Calendars decides what bills get to the floor for a vote,” said Villalba. “I can tell you right now most bills die in Calendars… because Calendars is, again, loyal to the speaker and loyal to the folks who are trying to get things done.”
With key Republican allies to Straus sitting for reelection in 2016 and public pressure mounting, it became clear that House Republicans needed to deliver a Second amendment victory. Establishment Republicans appeared content to allow campus carry to die in Calendars under the careful guard of State Rep. Todd Hunter (R-Corpus Christi). As is the strategy with obstructing many Republican priorities, refusing to allow a floor vote killed campus carry.
The House moved forward on passing licensed open carry. During debate, a futile fireworks show from Democrats ensued. As expected, their effort failed and the bill passed.