AUSTIN (AP) — Texas moved closer Friday to becoming the most populous state to allow licensed open carry of handguns after Republicans pushed through a key vote in the state House.
The 96-35 preliminary vote in favor of the measure sets up a final vote expected next week. The state Senate has already approved a similar version, and while some work remains to work out any differences, the chambers could send the measure to Gov. Greg Abbott, who has pledged to sign an open carry bill.
Abbott and the Legislature’s strong Republican majorities have pushed open carry as an important gun rights and self-defense measure. Most Democrats have opposed it, noting concerns from police in the state’s largest cities and gun control advocates about public safety.
Texas has had a concealed carry law since 1995 and supporters of open carry said they heard similar warnings about public mayhem and “war in the streets” back then.
“Our society is safer,” because of concealed carry, said bill sponsor Rep. Larry Phillips, R-Sherman. “It’s time to go ahead and take the next step.”
While most states allow some form of open carry, Texas, Florida, New York, California, Illinois and South Carolina still ban it.
Among those, Texas easily has the most gun-friendly reputation. From manufacturers to dealers, Texas has the most federal firearms license holders in the country. It has few restrictions on gun ownership, and the state has actively lobbied gun makers to move to the state.
Texas also allows the public display of long guns, such as rifles and shotguns, and open carry advocates have staged high-profile rallies at the Alamo and state Capitol. Concealed handguns are allowed inside the Capitol, where license holders can bypass metal detectors.
But the state has also had a 140-year ban on open carry, a prohibition dating to the post-Civil War era that disarmed former Confederate soldiers and freed slaves alike.
The bill passed Friday still requires Texans to get a license to carry a handgun. Texas has nearly 850,000 concealed handgun license holders under a process that requires classroom and gun range training, although lawmakers have lowered those standards in recent years.
License holders would have to use a shoulder or belt holster and it would be their choice to conceal the weapon or not. Business owners would still have the right to ban weapons from their premises, and open carry would not be allowed on college campuses.
Republicans voted down several attempts to amend the bill, rejecting efforts to allow police to detain someone carrying a weapon to verify their license, or to let Dallas, Houston and San Antonio, three of the largest cities in the country, to ban open carry.
“Nobody knows what will happen when we introduce open carry into heavily populated areas,” said Rep. Eric Johnson, D-Dallas. “We should let cities decide.”
Open carry opponents, such as Moms Demand Action for Gun Safety in America, say carrying guns on the street is more about intimidation than self-defense and gun rights.
The bill passed Friday is not the so-called “constitutional carry” measure, which would allow open carry without a license. That separate measure has been largely ignored by lawmakers the session began in early January when advocates confronted a House lawmaker in his Capitol office.
The next day, the House voted to make it easier to have “panic buttons” installed in their offices to make it easier for staff to summon security.
Copyright 2015 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.