- Associated Press - Monday, May 18, 2015

AUSTIN, Texas (AP) - The restaurant shootout among rival biker gangs in Waco became a last-ditch rallying cry Monday for opponents of a bill that Republican Gov. Greg Abbott is all but certain to soon sign into law: legalizing openly carried handguns in Texas.

The shootout that left nine people dead and 18 wounded happened with only two weeks remaining for the Texas Legislature, where Republicans prioritized expanded gun rights from the get-go after Abbott was sworn into office in January.

Police chiefs and opponents invoked the chaos in Waco and Wild West imagery to make a final protest to a Senate committee before a bill that would allow Texas gun owners to openly carry handguns begins the final approach to Abbott’s desk.

“Officers responded quickly, but open carry would or could have provided more confusion,” Austin Assistant Police Chief Troy Gay said.

After an hour of testimony - mostly from members of the gun control group Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America - the committee advanced the legislation to the full Senate by a 5-1 vote.

Abbott said concerns that open carry may have only exacerbated Sunday’s shootout are off the mark.

“The shootout occurred when we don’t have open carry, so obviously the current laws didn’t stop anything like that,” Abbott said.

Texas is one of only six states that don’t allow some form of open carry. Abbott has vowed to get Texas off that list, and could sign a bill doing so before June.

For the last five months, open carry opponents have packed the Capitol and testified repeatedly before the Republican-controlled Legislature about mass shootings elsewhere and the dangers of loosening gun laws further. The Waco shootout, they now say, brought the concerns closer to home.

Republicans on the Senate State Affairs committee were unpersuaded.

“There’s no such thing as a gun-free zone,” said Republican state Sen. Joan Huffman, a former Texas judge and prosecutor. “We try our best to control criminal activity. We have plenty of laws on the books to prevent criminals from committing crimes. As we can see yesterday, things still occur sometimes.”

Authorities say the Waco shootout erupted shortly after noon at a busy shopping center along Interstate 35 where members of at least five rival gangs had gathered for a meeting.

Preliminary findings indicate a dispute broke out in a bathroom and escalated to include knives and guns. The fight eventually spilled into the restaurant parking lot.

Officers shot armed bikers, according to Waco police Sgt. W. Patrick Swanton. It was not immediately clear whether any of the nine dead were killed by police.

Texas’ reaction to violent shootings has typically not been to restrict firearm laws. When a gunman in 1991 killed 23 people at a Luby’s restaurant in Killeen, about an hour’s drive south of Waco, a woman who saw her parents killed in the massacre became a state representative and helped pass a 1995 law legalizing concealed carry in public places.

“We keep coming back to the same thing of access to weapons. And you’re surprised something like this happens?” said Ed Scruggs, an Austin resident who testified against the open carry bill. “Whether those bikers were licensed (gun owners), it doesn’t matter. It’s just this atmosphere we have that everybody arms up.”

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Associated Press writer Will Weissert contributed to this report.

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Follow Paul J. Weber on Twitter: ww.w.twitter.com

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