87th LegislatureGunsState HouseState SenateHow Constitutional Carry Made Its Way Through the Texas Legislature

A perfect storm of factors blew together for the Texas Legislature to pass the hallmark pro-Second Amendment legislation.
June 28, 2021
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After the governor issued a statewide disaster declaration when the Lone Star State froze over around Valentine’s Day, it was legal for anyone who could legally possess a firearm to carry one while they were trying to escape their powerless homes and find somewhere warm — regardless of whether they had a License to Carry (LTC) or not.

The legislation that made permitless carry during a disaster evacuation possible was introduced in 2019 by a Beaumont Republican in his third term in the Texas House of Representatives.

Less than two years later, after a debacle that led to the retirement of the previous speaker, Rep. Dade Phelan (R-Beaumont) was elected to the top spot in the lower chamber.

During his first legislative session in the role, Republicans — joined by a handful of Democrats — ushered through a landmark piece of legislation that gun rights advocates in the state had been actively pushing throughout the past decade.

Referred to as “constitutional carry,” beginning on September 1, 2021, House Bill (HB) 1927 will legally allow most Texans who can possess a firearm to carry in public places, save for some “gun-free zones” like schools, without either an LTC or disaster evacuation.

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“You got to ask yourself, how big of a pivot in public policy is this?” said Rep. James White (R-Hillister), the chairman of the House committee the bill went through, during an interview with The Texan.

Though hailed as a monumental bill by advocates and critics alike, White noted that it isn’t a drastic departure from current law, which allows individuals without an LTC to buy a gun from a dealer and, in White’s words, “walk to your vehicle back with the weapon, keep it in your vehicle, and ride all around Texas with it.”

And though Texas banned the carry of handguns from 1871 until a license program was created in the 1990s, rifles have faced much less regulation in the Lone Star State and Texans are already allowed to carry them in public without any permit.

This year’s shift one step further toward the ideals of the Constitution in the view of many Second Amendment advocates did not come without a myriad of factors that pushed HB 1927 across the finish line on Gov. Greg Abbott’s desk.

House Speaker Dade Phelan (The Texan/Daniel Friend)

House Leadership Appointments

“You never know what’s going to happen when somebody gets elected to a speakership,” Rachel Malone, the director of the Texas chapter of Gun Owners of America (GOA), told The Texan. “But we were optimistic that we were going to see a friend in Speaker Phelan or at least somebody who was fair about it and didn’t do anything to block [constitutional carry].”

Phelan, who gained considerable influence in his new position this year, was no stranger to pro-gun legislation. In 2017, he was even a joint author on White’s constitutional carry bill.

Not only was Phelan friendly to constitutional carry, but he also appointed gun-friendly members to positions that stood between the bill’s filing and its consideration on the floor.

For the legislation to progress, it first needed approval from both the Homeland Security and Public Safety Committee where it would be considered in a public hearing.

Phelan appointed White — who had introduced constitutional carry before — to lead that committee.

And White suggested that the subject was brought up before his appointment.

“I run for office, too,” said White, noting that he has “a district that loves their Constitution and specifically reveres the Second Amendment.”

“It could very much be that,” he said, “having a discussion with the speaker before he announces committee chairmanship, [I said,] ‘Mr. Speaker, I respect your judgment, I thank you for the opportunity to lead a group of august members on the Homeland Security Public Safety Committee, but if I’m going to be on this committee, I think this is a discussion that we’re going to need.’”

Alongside the chairman, Phelan appointed three Democrats to the committee and five other Republicans — including three who signed onto HB 1927 and its author, Rep. Matt Schaefer (R-Tyler).

“I couldn’t have asked for a better House committee,” said Malone.

Rep. James White (The Texan/Brad Johnson)

Action in the House

The session started slowly as lawmakers took extra COVID-19 precautions, and by the time they could constitutionally move forward with filed legislation, the focus had shifted almost entirely to the Texas freeze.

Tension heated up between the Senate and House when Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick fast-tracked a repricing bill that was opposed by Phelan so that its filing and approval from the upper chamber all took place on March 15.

That same day, the House read and referred for the first time two constitutional carry bills: White’s HB 1911 and Schaefer’s HB 1927.

Those and two other constitutional carry bills — Rep. Kyle Biedermann’s (R-Fredericksburg) HB 1238, referred March 4, and Rep. Cole Hefner’s (R-Mt. Pleasant) HB 2900, referred March 18 — were scheduled for a marathon hearing on March 25.

Slated after a long day of testimony on the George Floyd Act, the hearing on the gun bills went well into the following morning to the dismay of some tired activists.

“Apparently, I turned out right,” said White, noting that between the slow start to session and the time lost focusing on the winter storm, the marathon hearing was necessary to pass constitutional carry. “Maybe some of this other stuff would have passed if folks would have had the long damn hearings.”

Though most eyes were on White’s bill, he said the others were kept in play so that opponents would “have to chase procedural blocks for four bills instead of just one bill.”

Malone said that although there were several bill authors in the House and Senate, “all of them cared more about the policy than they did about their own egos.”

Eventually, though, White’s bill and Schaefer’s were voted out of the committee and soon HB 1927 was scheduled by the House Calendars Committee to be brought to the floor on April 15, when it was approved for the first time by the whole chamber in an 84 to 56 vote.

State Rep. Matt Schaefer speaking to colleagues on the House floor. (The Texan/Brad Johnson)

Senate Shuffling

Sen. Bob Hall (R-Edgewood) filed his own constitutional carry legislation in the Senate, but it saw no movement.

“It was felt that it would not pass in the House, and so the Senate wasn’t going to go through a beat-up exercise and then have another bill die in the House,” Hall told The Texan. “We were already doing that enough with other bills.”

Malone, who has pushed for constitutional carry in Texas for years, said that the Senate often blames the House for a lack of movement.

“I think they were caught off guard this year. They thought the House was going to continue to not move forward the issue,” said Malone. Though they could have pushed their own bill earlier, she said that, “after the House bill came over, they had to move forward with the House bill.”

But when the House approved HB 1927, its future in the Senate seemed uncertain.

Patrick said the votes weren’t there to pass it, despite the Republican majority he was working with.

Then the public pressure — a “textbook example of ordinary Texans exerting influence on the legislature,” according to Schaefer — heated up in the Senate.

“I think there was some conjecture out there [that] the lieutenant governor was trying to kill the bill. That wasn’t the case. It’s the process,” said White. “He got the bill. As a legislative leader — which he is — he had to get his people around the table.”

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick (The Texan/Daniel Friend)

Days after Patrick said the upper chamber lacked the votes, the Senate suspended its rules to allow Sen. Charles Schwertner (R-Georgetown) to file his own constitutional carry bill, which was referred to the committee he chaired instead of the committee similar bills were referred to.

The next day, seemingly reversing course again, Patrick created a special committee chaired by Schwertner that was packed with Republicans who supported constitutional carry, and HB 1927 was promptly referred to it.

Why the other bill was filed is unclear. Schwertner’s office did not respond to a request for an interview, but Hall said that at the time, constitutional carry became a “high priority item” in the upper chamber.

Ahead of the Senate hearing, more pressure was added to pass the bill when Abbott said he’d sign constitutional carry into law.

Negotiations were also underway to alleviate some senators’ concerns about passing a bill that many law enforcement officials opposed, particularly those in urban areas.

“There was not a law enforcement organization anywhere in the state that liked the permitless constitutional carry bill,” Chambers County Sheriff Brian Hawthorne, the legislative director for the Sheriffs’ Association of Texas (SAT), told The Texan

“I think the SAT was really the first one that started kind of rolling back around,” said Hawthorne, adding that the group could only find “some middle ground” if certain amendments were added into the bill, such as broadening who would be prohibited from carrying under the bill and increasing penalties for felons who are caught illegally possessing a firearm.

Instead of formally adding the amendments to the bill at the hearing, Schwertner introduced them then but said he would wait until they were brought to the floor to make them an official part of the Senate’s version of the bill.

Sen. Charles Schwertner (The Texan/Daniel Friend)

He listed one to eliminate the fee for an LTC, but that was never brought to the floor. Instead, it was filed as a separate bill by Sen. Joan Huffman (R-Houston) because it was determined that the measure would not have been germane, according to Hall.

With legislative rules in the House, measures that are not germane can be challenged with a point of order and returned to the previous stage, often never to see the light of day again.

Schaefer told The Texan that the House parliamentarian “had set a reasonable left and right boundary of what the purpose of the bill was and what would be germane and what would not be.”

The bill author said that two of the SAT-backed amendments, “one dealing with the felony enhancements and a judge not being able to do probation and the other was with the list of the misdemeanors that they added,” would have both been “valid points of order.”

“We were shocked, but Chris Turner swung and missed,” said Schaefer. According to him, the failure to target the right amendments with a point of order by Turner, the chairman of the Democratic caucus, when the bill came back to the House was what allowed the bill to move forward.

Had a point of order been successful, it could have had a difficult time coming out of the Senate again.

“Those two amendments were very important to some of the senators that had supported the bill and that would have created a significant political problem,” said Schaefer.

Hawthorne likewise says that the SAT’s involvement may have helped address certain senators’ law enforcement concerns, but said that “from every aspect we could see and the legal counsel that the SAT uses,” they saw no germaneness problems.

Similarly, Hall said he “had a hard time seeing the lack of germaneness” and White said he didn’t “think those amendments were non-germane.”

“I have other people look at the bill and they told me it was clean,” said White. “And these are not people that are necessarily homers for the Republicans or for the Second Amendment.”

Germane or not, HB 1927 went to conference committee where Schaefer and Schwertner made some other changes to the bill. On May 24, it was finally approved by the legislature.

Several weeks later at the Alamo, Abbott signed the bill.

“One of the things that we believe from an SAT perspective is that constitutional carry is going to work out just fine,” said Hawthorne. As with other deregulations of guns in the past when “everybody thought it was going to be the wild wild west,” Hawthorne says that “most people really won’t even notice or see a difference.”

Sen. Charles Schwertner and Matt Schaefer after the signing of HB 1927. (The Texan/Daniel Friend)

Timeline of Constitutional Carry in the 87th Legislature:

Feb. 12: Rep. Matt Schaefer (R-Tyler) files House Bill (HB) 1927.

March 15: HB 1927 is read for the first time and referred to the House Committee on Homeland Security and Public Safety, chaired by Rep. James White (R-Hillister).

March 25: HB 1927, along with three other constitutional carry bills, are heard during a marathon hearing in White’s committee.

April 1: White’s committee approves HB 1927.

April 12: The committee report of HB 1927 is filed and sent to the Calendars Committee.

April 15: HB 1927 is brought to the House floor for the first vote before the whole chamber and is approved in an 84 to 56 vote.

April 16: HB 1927 is formally approved by the House a second time before the chamber in an 87 to 58 vote.

April 19: HB 1927 is received in the Senate. Lt. Governor Dan Patrick says that the Senate does not “have the votes on the floor to pass it.” 

April 22: Sen. Charles Schwertner (R-Georgetown) is given permission to file a new constitutional carry bill in the Senate, which is referred to the Senate Administration Committee, which Schwertner chairs.

April 23: A new “Special Senate Committee on Constitutional Issues” is created by Patrick, Schwertner is appointed as the chair, the committee is packed with Republican senators supportive of constitutional carry, and HB 1927 is referred to the committee.

April 27: Gov. Greg Abbott says he will sign the constitutional carry bill when it reaches his desk.

April 29: HB 1927 is heard and approved by the special committee, and Patrick says he will bring the bill to the Senate floor the following week.

May 5: HB 1927 is brought to the Senate floor and is approved in an 18 to 13, party-line vote, but with eight new amendments.

May 12: The House receives the bill back to its floor, refuses to concur with the Senate amendments, and requests a conference committee.

May 13: The Senate appoints its conferees for the committee.

May 21: Schaefer announces that the House and Senate conferees reached an agreement on what the final bill will look like.

May 23: The House approves the conference committee report in an 82 to 62 vote.

May 24: The Senate approves the conference committee report in a 17 to 13 party-line vote.

May 28: HB 1927 is sent to the governor.

June 17: Abbott signs HB 1927 and several other pro-gun bills in a ceremony at the Alamo.

Gov. Greg Abbott presenting HB 1927 after its signing. (The Texan/Daniel Friend)

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Daniel Friend

Daniel Friend is a reporter for The Texan. He participated in a Great Books program at Azusa Pacific University and graduated in 2019 with a degree in Political Science. He has studied C.S. Lewis’s science fiction trilogy and in his spare time you might find him writing his own novel partly inspired by the series.