Several races in the 2014 GOP primary appear promising for advocates of expanding gun rights in Texas.
Top Republican candidates are making sure primary voters know they’re opposed to any gun control efforts at the federal level – with some even proposing ways to loosen current Texas law.
Attorney General Greg Abbott has included a couple of gun-related proposals as part of a major policy paper released by his gubernatorial campaign. As spelled out in his “We the People” plan, Abbott would allow Texans to openly carry handguns and allow guns to be brought on college campuses.
In the Lieutenant Governor’s race, the Republican candidates are all campaigning on their support of the Second Amendment, as demonstrated in this campaign ad by State Senator Dan Patrick:
And when you look at public opinion polls, all the pro-gun rhetoric makes sense.
“I think if you look at Republican attitudes on the strictness of gun laws, it explains a lot of what we’re seeing right now," UT-Austin pollster Jim Henson says.
A poll he did in February found Texans are open to the idea of gun background checks for mental illness and criminal records. But strong opposition among Republicans to a ban on semi-automatic weapons or high capacity magazines.
Those are numbers that excite C.J. Grisham, the president and founder of Open Carry Texas. His group pushes for laws allowing people to openly carry guns in public.
"You know this is something that Texans care about. It’s not just limited to our group of people," Grisham says.
His group has been in the news lately as its members have been showing up around the state openly carrying rifles – which is legal in Texas.
Grisham says the extra support from GOP candidates like Greg Abbot is great, "but you know Abbott’s in a place right now where he can actually show that he supports open carry rights by doing something about this DPS problem.”
The "DPS problem" – as Grisham called it – is that six members of his group have been arrested on the Texas Capitol grounds for openly carrying guns the group argues it can legally carry. Grisham is waiting for Abbott, as the state’s Attorney General, to step in and stop those kinds of arrests from happening.
Grisham also isn’t 100 percent sold on Abbott’s plan to only allow open carry of handguns for people with a concealed handgun license.
“If that’s all we can get right now, then we’ll take it. And then we’ll fight the next battle of getting rid of all these licensing requirements," Grisham said.
But pushing for open carry could put Republicans at odds with law enforcement groups that have traditionally been their close allies.
Charley Wilkinson, the executive director of the Combined Law Enforcement Associations of Texas, says if lawmakers take another look at open carry in 2015, they need to understand approving it can’t be done in a vacuum.
“There needs to be a whole lot more emphasis, training, money and focus in law enforcement if when you roll up on an incident, if everybody’s going to be packing, then the officers are going to have to spend a whole lot more time in their discernment pattern of trying to figure out what to do," Wilkinson says.
Even in gun friendly Texas, there’s less public support for loosening gun laws to allow things like bringing guns on a University campus or open carry. Although pollster Jim Henson says that support is stronger among the most vocal GOP primary voters: the Tea Party.
“So while we don’t see an overwhelming embrace of that, we do see a plurality of Tea Party Republicans wanting less strict gun laws," Henson says.
Although Henson says campaign proposals to loosen gun laws don’t necessarily mean the candidates expect any new laws to pass, it is a way for those candidates to tap into the overall support in the GOP for expanding gun rights.