SAN ANTONIO — Texans have long carried rifles and shotguns openly in public. But with the Lone Star State poised to allow residents to openly carry handguns beginning in January, law enforcement agencies are hurrying to train their officers on the intricacies of the law and to devise protocol for inquiring about a gun owner’s open-carry permit.
Officials from agencies across Texas said they are bracing for an uptick in emergency calls from residents who might become concerned because they are not used to seeing people openly — and legally — carrying a handgun.
“I think the public has a perception that if someone is carrying a firearm openly into a shop that they will be arrested,” said Officer Joseph Gamaldi, second vice president of the Houston Police Officers Union. “This a huge concern for us. We are preparing for a significant increase in calls for carrying guns.”
Texas is making the change as the country wrestles with how best to reduce gun violence. Second Amendment proponents are pushing to relax restrictions that prevent owners from carrying their weapons for protection in “gun-free zones” such as college campuses while President Obama and congressional Democrats are advocating for stricter firearms regulations.
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican, in June signed the open-carry legislation into law. It will allow gun owners to openly carry handguns in a belt or shoulder holster only if they posses a carry license. The same restrictions on carrying a concealed handgun also will prevent the open-carry of handguns in places such as bars, large sporting events, on school grounds or in courthouses. Private businesses that don’t want gun owners carrying handguns inside of their establishments can post notice outside their establishments.
Because firearms are not required to be registered in Texas, it’s difficult to determine how many guns are owned in the state. A study published this summer in the medical journal Injury Prevention estimated Texas gun ownership at 35.7 percent. The Texas Department of Public Safety reported that as of December, there were 825,957 active concealed carry licenses in the state.
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The potential for so many Texans to openly carry handguns has prompted a flurry of activity among departments, particularly in large cities, as agencies work to educate their officers as well as the public.
In Houston, police will host a public forum Nov. 4 to answer residents’ questions about the law.
“Houston and Dallas will be the largest cities in the United States that allow open carry of a handgun,” Houston Police Chief Charles McClelland Jr. said in a media briefing this month. “So it’s going to take some adjustments for all of us.”
Emily Taylor, an independent program lawyer with the firearms legal defense program Texas Law Shield, said she has conducted more than 40 trainings for law enforcement agencies on the topic since the open-carry legislation was signed. Among the most frequent questions she hears from law enforcement are inquiries about how a handgun must be holstered to be in compliance with the law and when an officer can stop and require a person to display an open-carry permit.
“Officers have a lot of legitimate questions, like does the holster have to be worn on the body?” she said, noting that the statute does not explicitly answer the question.
There is also some debate across agencies as to whether officers have the right to approach anyone they see openly carrying a handgun in order to determine whether they are properly licensed. Ms. Taylor said she interprets the law to mean that officers do have that right.
“Otherwise, you are basically endorsing that anyone can carry,” she said. “We’re generally encouraging officers not to approach every person who open carries, but when their gut tells them that they need to talk to that person, to engage in a friendly conversation.”
Deputy Chief Jeff Cotner, who oversees the training division of the Dallas Police Department, said his office is developing videos and other material to educate more than 3,500 officers on their legal obligations when stopping or questioning someone openly carrying and advising officers of the best way to initiate contact to minimize any hostile interactions.
“Our ability to demonstrate our legitimacy there without being overly authoritative is the best way to approach this,” Deputy Cotner said.
In a poll taken before the law’s enactment this year, the Texas Police Chiefs Association found that 75 percent of members were opposed to open carry.
Chief McClelland said law enforcement agencies worry about the safety of officers as well as the gun-carrying public.
“Now folks that are openly carrying, if they see an incident, a crime unfolding, are they going to be more prone to insert themselves now? Will they be the target now?” Chief McClelland said. “I don’t know the answers to all these scenarios, but I have to prepare my officers.”
Texas will become the 45th state to allow open carry of a handgun in some form and the 15th state to require residents to obtain a permit to do so.
Although open carry laws are hardly new, law enforcement officials say they believe more people may be tempted to carry publicly in Texas at first because of the novelty.
“I think for a little while it will make life difficult for law enforcement. At the end, when everything washes out, I think it will be much like it is today,” said Val Verde County Sheriff Joe Frank Martinez, who oversees a rural county that borders Mexico. “I don’t think there will be many people out there carrying a weapon in a holster, but only time will tell.
“We’ll see what happens on Jan. 1.”