By JIM VERTUNO | Associated Press
AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — The Texas gun debate has gone wild, wild west.
A confrontation between gun owners and a state lawmaker who later was given a state security detail. Panic buttons installed in legislative offices. Guns made and displayed at the Capitol gates.
What many thought was a slam-dunk in the Republican-controlled Legislature, allowing the open carry of handguns in Texas, turned into a tempest in the opening weeks of the session. And its chances of passing seemed to further diminish when one of the state's most outspoken conservatives flip-flopped on whether it's even a priority issue.
The antics have left some gun-rights advocates shaking their heads.
“(Open carry) has been pushed off the rails by the nut jobs,” said Jerry Patterson, a former Marine, gun enthusiast and open-carry advocate who wrote the state's concealed handgun license law as a state lawmaker in the early 1990s.
Although Texas has more than 800,000 concealed handgun license holders, it is one of only six states that don't allow open carry, a ban that dates almost to the Civil War. But open carry looked primed to pass this year with strong support from Gov. Greg Abbott and other top Republicans.
Several bills have already been filed with varying levels of open carry. Most call for licensed open carry similar to the concealed handgun law. Others advocate allowing the open carry of handguns by anyone pretty much anywhere.
Another key gun bill, allowing concealed handguns on college campuses, took a hit when University of Texas System Chancellor William McRaven, who directed the special forces raid to kill Osama Bin Laden, recently wrote state leaders opposing it.
The session had barely begun when skirmishes broke out among competing open carry advocates. Several groups armed with assault rifles brought their weapons to a Capitol rally on opening day, exercising a state law that allows the open carry of long rifles.
One group, Come and Take It Texas, also brought a machine that finishes out the lower receiver of an assault rifle.
That was too much, too soon, said C.J. Grisham, founder of Open Carry Texas. He called making parts of weapons at the opening-day rally “confrontational and needless.”
Things turned confrontational just a few hours later. Members of Open Carry Tarrant County got into a heated exchange with state Rep. Alfonso “Poncho” Nevarez in his Capitol office.
Video posted online showed the activists calling the Eagle Pass Democrat a “tyrant” and ignoring his requests to leave, putting a foot in the door to keep it from closing.
Rattled House members voted the next day to make it easier to have office “panic buttons” installed. The Department of Public Safety later assigned Nevarez and his family a security detail.
Open carry opponents are sitting back and watching the movement implode.
“The extreme behavior on display is really drawing a picture for the public and lawmakers what open carry would look like,” said Claire Larson of the Texas Chapter of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America.
“It may be fun for the media to cover, but the reality is that this is not a TV reality show. We don't have panic buttons on playgrounds.”
Republican Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, a tea party favorite, took a surprising step back from his campaign pledge to “fight for open carry.” Patrick stunned open carry advocates when he said it wasn't a Senate priority and didn't have the votes to pass.
Open Carry Tarrant County leader Kory Watkins urged open carry advocates to respond and posted “We the people are the power,” and, “Get your panic buttons ready” on Facebook.
About 24 hours later, Patrick issued a statement saying he's never wavered on Second Amendmentissues and promised the Senate would “focus” on an open carry bill.
Nevarez had a gun on his desk in his office on Wednesday while two security officers stood watch nearby and shook his head at heated rhetoric.
“It's discouraging, and I feel for them, because I understand what these people are capable of in terms of their rhetoric, and it's real hateful, it's divisive,” Nevarez said.
Abbott, who has pledged to sign an open carry bill into law, shrugged off the early-session messiness.
“Open carry is the law in 44 states. … It hasn't been the outbreak of the OK Corral,” Abbott said Friday. “And I don't think it will be in the state of Texas, either.”
Follow Jim Vertuno on Twitter at: www.twitter.com/JimVertuno