Bill would allow unlicensed gun carry after disasters
Unlicensed handgun owners would be allowed to carry their weapons — openly or concealed — in public for up to a week in any area where a local, state or federal disaster is declared, under a bill that has been overwhelmingly approved by the Texas House, 102 to 29.
House Bill 1177 by Rep. Dade Phelan, R-Beaumont, now awaits its first hearing in the Texas Senate. Phelan said he wrote the bill so gun owners don’t have to leave their firearms behind when evacuating their homes. Existing laws allow gun owners to store them in their vehicles, with some conditions.
“I don’t want someone to feel like they have to leave their firearms back in an unsecured home for a week or longer, and we all know how looting occurs in storms,” Phelan said. “Entire neighborhoods are empty and these people can just go shopping, and one of the things they’re looking for is firearms.”
Opponents say Phelan’s bill could make a bad situation worse by adding firearms to an already volatile situation.
“It’s permitless carry in an emergency and that phrase should bring fear to all of us,” said Gyl Switzer, executive director of Texas Gun Sense.
Phelan’s bill is sponsored by the National Rifle Association, and has 41 co-authors in the House.
Alice Tripp, legislative director of the group’s Texas organization, said Hurricanes Katrina and Harvey showed that gun owners need to protect themselves and their possessions from looting after a major disaster.
“It weighs on us … we know the kind of devastation that can happen and the chaos that can happen getting people out,” Tripp said.
The bill also had strong support in the House Committee on Homeland Security and Public Safety, passing with a 6-3 vote in March. Representatives Celia Israel, D-Austin, Gina Calanni, D-Katy, and Vikki Goodwin, D-Austin, voted against it.
“The way that bill was written puts emergency shelters at risk for liabilities and having to determine who can have a gun and can’t have a gun,” Calanni said. “I think we just want to be really careful when we’re bringing guns into any situation that we are being conscious of everyone involved.”
Phelan has said gun owners and people operating shelters would be able to decide if a firearm should be brought to a shelter and how it could be safely stored.
Florida has had a similar law since 2015, but that law only allows unlicensed people to carry handguns in mandatory evacuation areas. Phelan’s bill originally only allowed unlicensed carry if a mandatory evacuation was declared, like the Florida law, but he amended it during the House floor debate to allow unlicensed carry in any declared disaster area, regardless of whether an evacuation is ordered.
Since the beginning of 2016, seven different disasters have been declared across different part of Texas, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency website.
Switzer said the bill is addressing a problem that could be taken care of by simply preparing for the worst case scenario.
“That’s the way you need to prepare for any emergency is having plans in place,” Switzer said. “The plan is not to carry them with you wherever you go including in the high stress environments with other people who do not have guns.”
The early successes of Phelan’s bill are in contrast to broader debate on “constitutional carry” — allowing unlicensed owners of handguns to carry them in public — in the Texas Legislature, which has failed to get off the ground this session.
“I think one day constitutional carry will be in that vein where it’s not a big deal,” Phelan said. “I think we’ll get there one day, but it takes small steps like this to prove to people that law abiding citizens are just fine carrying a firearm.”