Last week, the Texas Republican Party Convention featured plenty of controversial issues. The platform pushed the party’s immigration plank further right and endorsed ex-gay therapy for men and women “seeking escape from the homosexual lifestyle.” Most of these issues garnered widespread support from convention delegates, but none was as confusing and seemingly contradictory as gun rights. Almost hard to believe this is Texas.
In the past year, open-carry laws have become a rallying cry for the state’s gun-rights advocates. Under current Texas law, gun owners can carry long guns, like AKs and ARs, just about anywhere not selling alcohol. Open-carry advocates want to be able to parade with their pistols in plain site too (currently, handguns must be concealed). After all, an AR assault rifle can weigh about nine pounds and make reaching for the wallet rather difficult. To protest the state’s 170-year-old ban on open-carry pistols, groups like Tarrant County Open Carry and Open Carry Texas have been brandishing their long arms at local businesses, attracting the attention not only of state and national media, but anti-gun groups like the Michael Bloomberg-funded Mothers Demand Action. The biggest hoopla came after a group of open-carry advocates decided to load up with assault rifles before loading up their bellies with burrito bowls from a Dallas-area Chipotle. After almost every demonstration, the businesses have publicly “asked” open-carry demonstrators, with their long-gun AKs and ARs, to please stay away. Then there was the NRA’s statement late last month condemning the efforts, followed quickly by a retraction.
Problems followed the open-carry advocates all the way to the Texas Republican Convention, where they had promised to demonstrate. It wasn’t after a bit of hand-wringing and finger-wagging from top Republican officials that everyone came to an understanding (thanks to rules already mandated by the state’s booze overlords): No open-carrying of any guns inside the convention center except for old black powder pistols, revolvers long exempt from any such laws. Like the previous convention, posters were tapped to every single entrance stating that it was illegal to open-carry inside.
So the open-carry protesters stood outside. On Thursday, there were almost a dozen members of Tarrant County Open Carry standing across the street from the Fort Worth Convention Center, some carrying signs, some carrying semi-automatic rifles and some, impressively, carrying both.
“I don’t want a machine gun to scare a little kid,” said one delegate, a bit riled, as he walked by. “I think what they’re trying to do is start a dialogue,” he continued, but quickly added, “If I were in Chipotle, I would have done the same thing, saying, ‘Hey, you’re scaring some of the people.’”
Among the open-carry supporters standing on that street corner was Alex Phillips. “It gets attention,” he told me. “If we just had a few signs people don’t really see that. You have some people with some ARs, AKs, some bolt-action rifles, and it gets attention.”
Despite the panic by anti-gun groups and the tense wording of news reports, Phillips said they’d always had a great reception. As if to prove his point, a passing truck emitted cheers and honks, an event that would repeat itself numerous times over the next 20 minutes. To be fair, Phillips seemed like a bit of an anomaly amongst the group. For him, the right to open-carry was “a practical one,” since he’s a war reenactor (“The more accurate term is ‘living history interpretation,’” he told me). Different wars require different weapons, some of them heavy-duty. “I’ve actually open-carried a rocket launcher,” Phillips said. In Fort Worth, he was carrying just a remodeled Civil War-era Remington revolver.
His fellow demonstrators, however, were strapped with real firepower—the kind that the convention planners explicitly banned and that the NRA originally described as “downright weird” in open-carry demonstrations. While the NRA walked that statement back, Republicans seemed to share it at the convention booth for the Texas State Rifle Association, an NRA affiliate. “They’re poisoning the well,” said Alice Tripp, who manned the booth. “They say, ‘well, that's my right’ and that’s childish.”
The irony, as Tripp noted, was that the open-carry groups actually just want a legal right to openly carry pistols wherever they please. Many of them use the larger weapons simply to bring attention to their cause. That’s part of the reason the movement has fractured into various groups. Some, like the Tarrant County group, disagree with Texas Open Carry’s attempt to cease long-arm demonstrations and carry only black powder pistols.
These factions, however, do agree on one thing: The NRA hasn’t done as much as it could for the Second Amendment cause in Texas. Sure, the Lone Star state isn’t New York, which has some of the most restrictive gun rights in the country, but for Second Amendment here in Texas, kinda good ain’t good enough. “In the last ten years, the NRA and the TSNRA have been very ineffective in getting significant gun legislation passed in Texas,” said Terry Holcomb, executive director of Texas Open Carry. While Holcomb pushed the group to carry only black-powder guns, Texas Open Carry argues that the state legislature hasn’t passed any significant gun legislation since a 1995 conceal handgun carry law. And happy as the group is with the NRA’s apology over weird-gate, Holcomb also notes that Texas is one of five states without an open-carry law and is ranked 15th in the country for gun rights by Guns and Ammo. To make matters worse, two neighbors—Oklahoma and Arizona—have open-carry handgun laws on the books.
“We’ve had a Republican majority and we haven't gotten any gun legislation through … because they’re fuckin’ RINOs,” said Amy Hedtke, a conservative activist wearing a fitting red dress with American-flag colored, knee-high leather boots and carrying a black powder pistol. Hedtke was one of the most popular spectacles for both media and delegates at the convention. She knows how to draw attention to her causes: It was at the 2012 Republican National Convention in Florida, where, as a little bit of civil disobedience against weapons restrictions, Hedtke twice managed to sneak a ten-foot-long bullwhip onto the floor by tying it around her waist and calling it a belt.
Hedtke isn’t associated with any official group but has been pushing for gun rights for more than a year. “The worst push back is those from the Republican Party,” she said, “and the latest pushback we’re seeing is right here in the convention.”
The open-carry advocates are tired of it. “We told them last session, if you ignore we’re going to put on our long guns, we’re going to walk,” said Holcomb. “And they did not believe us.”
Things came to a head at the Monday platform meeting when Tom Meckler, chair of the platform committee, who would later help preside over the entire delegate vote, said no open-carry of black powder, not even pistols, would be allowed. Holcomb disagreed. So did state law. Still, the sergeant of arms was told to remove Holcomb and police got involved. The situation was finally resolved with the chair of the entire Texas Republican party stating that black powder pistols were more than welcome.
But trouble continued to boil on Wednesday, after a temporary rules committee vote unrelated to firearms. According to accounts by several parties, including the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, committeeman Gerald Haddock was approached by two pistol-packing delegates who disagreed with his committee vote. An argument ensued. Heated words were exchanged. Haddock says he felt “confronted, coerced, bullied and threatened” by the gun-wielding delegates.
Haddock, a lawyer who once represented the Texas Rangers baseball team, is now loading his legal clip, requesting actual dispositions for an investigation that could turn into a lawsuit. He told me he wants to know “their plans going into this? Was it orchestrated by some higher source of order? Was it part of a plan of intimidation by a faction of the party?”
Open-carry advocates familiar with the incident say Haddock was acting emotional and that they never threatened Haddock. Also, they say only one person was strapped. Nevertheless, the next day, Bill Crocker, chair of the rules committee, stood before a room full of delegates and called the open-carry advocates an “embarrassment to the party.”
“He went off on a tirade and grouped all open-carriers as very bad people [with a] scathing, monologue statement against all open-carry,” said Holcomb, who was present at both encounters. Neither Terry nor Hedtke took this well, objecting loudly in the meeting despite repeated calls of being out of order. Hedtke, strapped but sans bullwhip, shouted her condemnation, pointing a finger (though not her gun) squarely at Crocker. “They’re ramping up different ways to push our buttons,” said Hedtke. “Hoping somebody in the open-carry movement will screw up.”
The current open-carry debate is surprising not only because it’s happening in Texas, where even liberals have their own gun groups, but because it has Republicans expressing the kinds of practical concerns typically spouted by anti-gun proponents.
“[Voting rights are] the essence of democracy,” Haddock told me a few days after the confrontation. “And we cannot have anybody in a position of doing something that intimidates and in any way restricts that process.” I had proposed to him that perhaps that is exactly why anti-gun proponents don’t want guns in public at all. That a civil society, a democracy, in which ideas are always and openly being discussed means people need to not feel intimidated by firearms when hotly debating issues. Or just walking down the street to eat at Chipotle. Needless to say, responses from Republican delegates were conflicted.
“It’s not a radical thing, but it seems … a little unnerving to see people walking around the street with guns,” said delegate Teryn Driver, a self-described libertarian-leaning Republican. “Now do I think it will it probably decrease crime? I think it probably will. But it still makes me uneasy. I can’t say I’m completely comfortable with it. But that doesn’t mean I’m against it.”
Just last week, outgoing Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson, known statewide as the gun guy in government—he authored the 1995 CHL bill and late last year spoke at a open-carry demonstration at the Alamo—criticized the recent open-carry efforts because they have a tendency to “scare the crap out of people.”
Patterson is walking a particularly interesting line between being adamantly pro-gun and playing careful politics. “I guess we’re kind of ground zero for a lot of these things,” Patterson told me. But, he said, these “ambush events are not helpful” in pushing for less restrictive gun laws. While he thinks that perhaps the activists are becoming “a bit more savvy,” Patterson adamantly disagrees with Holcomb’s contention that Republican legislators in power haven’t done much for gun rights, citing his own efforts to roll back CHL restriction and expand campus-carry.
How successful any of the open-carry efforts are likely to be is unclear. Hedke doesn’t have much faith in the more conservative Tea Party wave that swept the Texas Republican primaries and will most likely move their victories to the Capitol. Matt Mackowiak, Republican consultant, and frequent oracle for media doing conservative stories, isn’t sure either. “My guess is that there won’t be much of an effort to pass open-carry in the legislature next year,” he said. “I know there’s a vocal minority that’s holding these protests in restaurants that’s creating backlash. And I think they’re making their job harder,” said Mackowiak. “You’re seeing Second Amendment supporters, people who theoretically support an open-carry provision that don’t really approve of some of these protest efforts.”
The perceived lack of legislative movement (it’s been “death by indifference or by stalling,” according to the state’s version of Politico, Texas Tribune) could cause a Catch-22 for Second Amendment lovers in the state. At the convention, the party unanimously passed a platform stating that legislators would actively pursue gun rights legislation. That kind of encouragement may actually spell trouble for open-carry activists who have not been received with open arms by the media, business or more moderate Republicans that currently run the state. The harder they lobby, the more they could turn people off, or worse, scare the hell out of them. Shooting themselves in the foot, as it were. It’s certainly a discussion that Texas Republicans, of all people, just don’t seem to want to have. If anything, it may produce the kind of confounding statements that belie the gun-toting Texas stereotype.
“I’m going to say Republicans are 9-to-1 in favor of somebody stopping the unlimited use of power with guns,” said Haddock. “And that is heartwarming to me because it tells me that the whole of the Republican Party is still alive and well.”
Depends on who you challenge to a duel.