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Don’t Mess With Texas: State Activists Push Back On New Gun Laws

As a public university, the University of Texas at Austin must comply with Texas' new campus carry law.

CREDIT: Flickr user Dave Wilson.

Though Texas leads the nation in many areas, including laying claim to the number one public university in the nation, it is failing in one important space: common sense gun legislation. The Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence gives Texas a failing grade for its gun laws, ranking it 33rd in the nation for smart gun legislation.  Specifically, the state fails to: require universal background checks or require firearms dealers or gun owners to obtain a state license; regulate the transfer or possession of assault weapons; or mandate the registration of firearms or reporting of lost or stolen firearms.  With a laundry list of inaction that long, it’s easy to assume that advocates for common sense gun reform would be frustrated and defeated—but they’re not.

Texas gun violence prevention activists need to be creative about their approaches to change, and they recognize that there is more than one way to encourage common sense gun policy. Moms Demand Action For Gun Sense In America (often known simply as “Moms”) and Texas for Gun Sense (TGS)—two of the state’s leading gun violence prevention advocacy groups—each take their own approach.

While Moms focuses on grassroots organizing on the ground, TGS keeps its focus on policy proposals and changes. Though the groups operate on two different organizing planes, they remain united in what they see as the fight for common sense gun reform over the loud voices of gun rights activists.

The Texas State Legislature operates under the biennial system, so it convenes its regular sessions at noon on the second Tuesday in January of odd-numbered years. The maximum duration of a regular session is 140 days and runs from January to Memorial Day. Because of this, activists have an entire year between sessions to plan their actions for or against legislation.

On January 1 of this year, an open carry law, House Bill 910 (HB-910), went into effect across the state. HB-910 expands the scope of a concealed handgun license. Specifically, it authorizes an individual possessing such a license to carry the handgun in plain view in a public place if the handgun is carried in a shoulder or belt holster. Despite its reputation as a pro-gun state, this new law made the Lone Star State the 45th U.S. state to allow licensed citizens to carry handguns openly in public.

According to the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, 31 states allow the open carrying of a handgun without any license or permit, although in some cases the gun must be unloaded.  Fifteen states, including Texas, require some form of license or permit in order to openly carry a handgun.

The state legislature voted mostly along party lines to pass the law. In the Texas House of Representatives, it was approved 102-43, with just five Democrats joining the Republican majority. In the Senate, the bill passed with 20 Republican votes in favor and 11 Democratic votes against it.

Gun violence prevention activists are contesting this law through both policy changes and grassroots activism. Generation Progress sat down in Austin, Texas with Andrea Brauer, executive director of Texas for Gun Sense, to discuss the organization’s policy recommendations, and Nicole Greene of Moms Demand Action For Gun Sense in America to learn about grassroots efforts to push back against this latest piece of expansive gun deregulation.

From The Halls Of The Capitol: Andrea Brauer

Texas for Gun Sense is a tiny organization with a fierce leader.  The entire organization is “1.5 people working full time, with a strong board presence and volunteers,” according to Brauer. Their small size doesn’t discourage Brauer, who believes that collaboration with other actors is crucial to success.

“The best way to make policy movement is to get everybody in a room together,” said Brauer, who organizes the Texas Coalition to Reduce Gun Violence as one of her main responsibilities as executive director for Texas for Gun Sense (TGS). “Certainly for this issue which is so divisive, and there are so many people impacted by it,” she added.

The organization’s mission is to “create safer communities through a unified effort to raise awareness and reduce gun violence in Texas.” TGS is a little engine that could. With 1.5 full time employees, the staff is tiny, but the support is powerful. The Texas Coalition to Reduce Gun Violence is comprised of both invited officials and public participants. “I invited every legislative office and any affected interest group, and we got 70 people which is pretty good. We got five to 10 Republicans, which is good for Texas, and the goal was really just to start the conversation,” said Brauer.

Despite the size of her organization, Brauer was invited to testify in front of the Senate State Affairs Committee on January 26, 2016 on confusion surrounding the open carry and campus carry laws. Brauer is no stranger to the Texas Legislature, where she worked for six years, with three-year stints as a policy analyst for the Sunset Advisory Commission and as director of projects for former state Sen. Eliot Shapleigh (D-El Paso). She has also worked for nonprofits whose work included helping foster children and children with disabilities and as an early education policy associate at Texans Care for Children.

Of course, Brauer would prefer that policies like open carry and campus carry were never enacted in the first place. However, she understands the legislative process so thoroughly that she focuses her energy on improving the laws rather than dismantling them altogether.

At the moment, one of Brauer’s main focuses to provide safety information on the Texas Concealed Handgun Licensing Page.

““The least we can do is educate,” she said.

According to Brauer, the word “safety” doesn’t appear even once on the homepage, nor the index.

“There are 62 frequently asked questions and the word safety doesn’t come up once,” she says.

Such a request is hardly political. In fact, in the world of advocating for common sense, this step seems to be quite fair. “I’m not going and beating down business doors, but I’m saying, ‘Hey, this is a reasonable step we can take to educate. Can you just put up some safety information on your website?’”

Brauer emailed legislators and the Governor’s office, providing both with examples of how other states mention safety information on their websites. Such small steps may not amount to laws being overturned but could still make a difference, preventing accidents.

In advocating for changes like this one, Brauer chooses her words carefully, understanding that hot-button issues like gun sense legislation require intentional language.

“I always start by saying, ‘We are a gun violence prevention organization,’ and then add, ‘We’re not anti-second amendment, we’re not anti-gun,’ just to get it out there. We’re specifically trying to position Texas for Gun Sense as moderate. We’ve seen so many bad things happen: campus carry, open carry, reduced training requirements. They’re on a path to loosening restrictions here, not strengthening,” said Brauer.

Open carry and reduced training are only a few of the recent victories won by the conservative-controlled Texas Legislature. Another contentious issue on the table concerns campus carry. Senate Bill 11 was signed into law on June 13 and allows the carrying of handguns on campuses and institutions of higher education. The law, which goes into effect on August 1, 2016, allows the presidents of private or independent universities in Texas to prohibit concealed handgun license holders from carrying handguns on their campuses. Every private or independent university in Texas has either exercised that option and prohibited the carrying of handguns on their campuses, or remain undecided.

Public schools, however, don’t have the luxury of choice. Though they’re forced to accept the law at face-value, some public schools are trying to modify how the law is applied to their campus. Recently, University of Texas at Austin president Gregory Fenves sent 25 policy suggestions—all of which aim to limit the scope of the campus carry legislation—to the University of Texas Chancellor.

Brauer knows that her organization’s presence isn’t an overwhelming force in the gun violence prevention atmosphere in Texas, but that isn’t her goal. Brauer has a policy background and focuses her energy on proposing policy and legislative changes. “You’ve got to work with the system. At the end of the day, I prefer going down to the Capitol, talking policy, putting something in writing, having the decision-makers hear you,” said Brauer.

While Brauer concentrates on creating change from within the legislature, she recognizes the need for the kind of grassroots activism Moms Demand Action organizes. “Moms Demand Action came out in force last session. Everyone knew who they were. They’re good and they’re strong,” Brauer said.

On The Ground: Nicole Greene

Founded after the massacre at Sandy Hook elementary school that left 20 children and six others dead, Moms Demand Action’s mission, according to their website, is to “demand action from legislators, state and federal; companies; and educational institutions to establish common-sense gun reforms.” They seek to create change through community organizing and volunteer participation.

Nicole Greene serves as the group leader for Austin, which in turn is part of the Texas chapter. In mid-January, she sat down with Generation Progress to talk about the work the group has been doing around open carry.

Starting softly, Greene explained: “After Sandy Hook happened, I was devastated, I was distraught, I couldn’t function or process it. I just knew that my life changed at that point.”

“It was like the feeling that kids are safe in school was stolen from us that day.”

A mother of two, Greene is a dedicated group leader in Austin. She is proud of the level of activity that the group has been able to maintain. “We are always doing something, especially in the Texas chapter. We are one of the most active chapters and considered very successful and admired because of some of the stuff we’re up against and how hard we work,” Greene said.

At an outdoor table, even raucous noises from nearby construction trucks couldn’t mask the enthusiasm in Greene’s voice as she outlined some of the victories that Moms had in the last legislative session.

Show Us A Sign: Prohibiting Concealed And Open Carry At Businesses

After the open carry bill passed, Brauer did not take the position of trying to overturn the law. Instead, she dug into a specific policy provision of the new law concerning the amount of training required for open carry and recommended changes from there. “I did not like that your license automatically goes from concealed carry to open carry on January 1 with absolutely no training,” she explained.

“After January 1, anyone seeking a license has to get training on how to open carry securely and the use of restraint holsters,” Brauer said. However, those who were already licensed were not given information about how their licensure had changed. Essentially, this was like giving someone with a driver’s license the ability to drive a boat without requiring any additional training.

While HB-910 allows licensed individuals to open carry, it also gives businesses the right to decide if they will allow customers with guns to enter their business. In order to prohibit guns, concealed or open, businesses must post a sign that meets specific requirements laid out in HB-910. “I think we have the most onerous requirements of any state,” said Brauer, of the burden placed on businesses wanting to prohibit guns from their premises.

Taking advantage of the law’s provision granting businesses the choice of whether or not to allow guns on site, Moms Demand Action identified local businesses as potential allies. For Greene, much of the activism is personal—many of the businesses she approaches about posting a sign are ones that she frequents with her children. But it’s not just personal, it’s effective.

“Our voice on the open carry issue has been a significant way to get our word out in the media and recruit volunteers. It has garnered so much interest because it feels to people like it’s happening right in their backyard—and it is. It’s something people want and can do something about now,” said Greene.

“I’ve sat with my kids in my living room and tweeted businesses that I thought, ‘Where do I take my kids for burgers and pizza?’ and I tweeted those places and some of them responded and said, ‘Signs are going up right away,’”she said.

Many business owners oppose allowing guns in their stores, but the signage that is required to make that happen is a heavy burden.  “There’s a lot of talk about how difficult the signage is. It’s not pretty. It’s made purposefully cumbersome because the ideal would be to not post it, right?” Greene said. “Some businesses are having trouble deciding what they think aesthetically about this. It is not a pro-business tactic, it’s huge lettering, it’s language that is hard to understand.”

According to the Texas Department of Public Safety (DPS), the signs have very specific requirements. The signs, which the DPS does not print for distribution, must include the following text in English and in Spanish: “Pursuant to Section 30.06, Penal Code (trespass by license holder with a concealed handgun), a person licensed under Subchapter H, Chapter 411, Government Code (handgun licensing law), may not enter this property with a concealed handgun” and “Pursuant to Section 30.07, Penal Code (trespass by license holder with an openly carried handgun), a person licensed under Subchapter H, Chapter 411, Government Code (handgun licensing law), may not enter this property with a handgun that is carried openly.”

In addition to the language, the DPS requires that signs also “appear in contrasting colors with block letters at least one inch in height; and be displayed in a conspicuous manner clearly visible to the public.” Signs must also be posted, and clearly visible to the public, at each entry to the property.

Alongside an FAQ explaining the new law and its requirements for businesses, the Texas Restaurant Association has provided its own version of the sign on its website to be downloaded by its members.

“The Texas Restaurant Association’s role is to provide information on the law and answer our members’ questions so that they are informed and able to make the decision for their business,” Texas Restaurant Association Vice President of Marketing & Communication Wendy Woodland told Generation Progress in a statement.

“Each restaurant will make the business decision as to whether or not to prohibit open carry. Of the members we’ve spoken to, some are planning to allow open carry, some are planning to prohibit it and others are taking a ‘wait and see’ approach before making their final decision.”

Though the Texas Restaurant Association declined to take a stance on the issue, the Texas Association for Businesses was active in parts of the legislative process with Moms Demand Action.

“During the legislative session we got a bill sponsored that would have made the signage requirements simpler, and we got the support of the Texas Association for Business (TAB), which normally is not an entity that speaks up for gun issues, and that was really cool,” said Greene. “That bill did not go far but there are other possibilities down the road.”

Cathy DeWitt, vice president of governmental affairs for the Texas Association of Business, says that the TAB is “still supportive of straightforward signage and a downloadable sign” available from the Department of Public Services.

“The next session is in 2017 and we will be asking the legislature to at least provide the Spanish translation to ensure compliance,” said DeWitt. “The most frequently asked question from businesses was where they could find the official translation.”

Concerning gun violence prevention activists’ efforts, both in 2015 and moving forward, Brauer said: “So many volunteers really came out and made a difference with the signage issue and ruffled the feathers of the NRA. It sends a message, it says: ‘We’re not going away. We’re strong, we’re a voice, we have a say.’”

Finding Optimism

Advocacy on the state and national level can be exhausting, especially with divisive issues like gun legislation.

“This is a marathon not a sprint,” Greene said. “We really hit the ground running, and we’re still running, but I think we need to remember that we’re taking baby steps toward a long goal. We’re not rushing to get something done, however much we may want that.”

Although states like Texas haven’t had many “wins” for the gun violence prevention community, Brauer and Greene find optimism in their work.

“There’s more noise in the movement, there’s more of a presence,” said Brauer. “I’m proud of the work I’m doing. I’m establishing Texas Gun Sense as a strong policy voice and the organization is becoming more known. I’m glad to be able to be in the conversation and have the dialogue and I’m going to keep pushing the envelope.”

Greene echoed Brauer’s optimism, saying: “I feel really optimistic that even if it’s going to be a while until we see true change in terms of legislation, federally and statewide, that people are getting on board. I really feel optimistic about that. Our numbers at events have grown, it’s obvious, that change is happening.”

Both Brauer and Greene are optimistic because they have seats at the table—something both women say might not have been the case a few years ago. They are being invited to conversations and watching their organizations grow, even if it is with slow, small victories. “Texas Gun Sense will have its first legislative agenda and we will have bills filed. They may not pass but we will get them filed. That’s my optimism,” Brauer said.

Celebrating small victories is important in advocacy work, and small changes usually require giant amounts of energy. Getting involved is the first step, and both Brauer and Greene recommend that young people take that first step—whether in gun violence prevention advocacy, or another issue they feel passionately about.

Advice To Millennials

Gun violence has surfaced as one of the major issues for Millennials during the 2016 election lead-up. A poll commissioned by Rock The Vote and USA Today/Gannett found that young people aged 18-35 believe gun laws and gun safety fall in the top five most important issues for the next President to prioritize.

The same poll found that 82 percent of Millennials agree that the U.S. should pass a law requiring background checks for all gun purchases, and 58 percent of Millennials agree that stricter gun laws would help prevent gun violence.

“In my maturity after the last few years, I have learned to accept baby steps as successes and take even the smallest victories and be proud of them and promote them,” said Greene. “The truth is, there’s always something else to work for but there really are small victories. Even in the hardest situations. We have taken some amazing baby steps. We’re up against a lot in Texas but if you think about the strides we’ve made, they’re pretty big because they’ve happened.”

Brauer believes strongly in the power of people to create those small changes. “Know your legislator, call your legislator, know your congressman, vote, give them a specific ask, tell them you care,” she said. “I had someone in the Houston area. She called her legislator, Jim Murphy (R) , and said, ‘I want you to go to this meeting,’ and he went. When I went around the room and asked people why they were there, he said, ‘This is important to my constituents.’”

“Sometimes,” Greene said, “just being seen is a victory.”

Bettina Weiss is a reporter for Generation Progress, covering gun violence prevention. Follow her on Twitter at @bweiss22.

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