Two gun rights activists argue with a state trooper who will not allow them to enter an overflow room due to COVID-related restrictions at the Capitol on April 29, 2021.

Credit: Jordan Vonderhaar for The Texas Tribune

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The Republican-led effort to allow Texans to carry handguns without any kind of license cleared what is likely its biggest remaining hurdle in the Capitol on Wednesday, when the Texas Senate moved in a nail-biter vote to bring the measure to the floor and then gave it preliminary approval.

Pending final approval, the measure – already passed by the Texas House – heads to a conference committee for the two chambers to hash out their differences, unless the House accepts the Senate amendments. Then the bill heads to Gov. Greg Abbott, who said last week he would sign the permitless carry bill into law.

House Bill 1927 would nix the requirement for Texas residents to obtain a license to carry handguns if they’re not prohibited by state or federal law from possessing a gun. The Senate initially approved the bill in a 18-13 vote, less than a week after it sailed out of a committee created to specifically to tackle the legislation.

Proponents of what Republicans call “constitutional carry” argue that Texas should follow the lead of at least 20 other states with similar laws on the books. Meanwhile, gun control advocates are sounding the alarm about making it easier to carry firearms after repeated instances of gun violence — including 2019’s massacres in El Paso and Midland-Odessa.

Under current state law, Texans must generally be licensed to carry handguns openly or concealed. Applicants must submit fingerprints, complete four to six hours of training and pass a written exam and a shooting proficiency test. Texas does not require a license to openly carry a rifle in public.

“This bill, to me, is a restoration of the belief in and trust of our citizens,” said state Sen. Charles Schwertner, R-Georgetown, who is carrying the legislation in the upper chamber. “We cannot allow another session to come and go where we pay lip service for the Second Amendment by failing to fully restore and protect the rights of citizens granted by the Constitution.”

The bill’s fate remained uncertain heading into debate on Wednesday morning and led to a rare case of the GOP-controlled Senate taking up a bill with unclear odds at passage. Ultimately, every Republican supported the bill, but a handful of key senators admitted in debate that they reservations about certain provisions — namely a lack of support from law enforcement.

Patrick and other Republicans who were on the fence were under immense political pressure from conservatives and gun rights advocates, who have for years lobbied the Texas Legislature for permitless carry but historically struggled to win support.

Leaders in both chambers previously held permitless carry at arm’s length, but the cause quickly gained momentum this year in the House, adding pressure to the Senate.

Patrick has expressed reservations about permitless carry in the past. Ahead of the 2015 session, he said he did not think there was enough support among lawmakers or the public, a sentiment he reiterated in 2017 while citing law enforcement concerns with “anyone being able to walk down the street with a gun and they don’t know if they have a permit or not.”

A solid majority of Texas voters don’t think permitless carry should be allowed, according to the latest University of Texas/Texas Tribune poll.

During Wednesday’s debate, several Democratic senators raised concerns that repealing the licensing requirement would allow people to carry handguns without a background check or training. Texas does not require background checks for private gun sales.

“This will be the first time … that we will not look to training or background checks or law enforcement or the authorities to know who they are dealing with,” said state Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, adding that permitless carry is a “huge departure from where we’ve been before.”

Schwertner argued that gun safety is a personal responsibility.

“The [licensing] requirement is what is being set aside; the obligation on the part of the citizen who owns a potentially dangerous weapon to understand gun laws, to become proficient in their handling of their gun, is not absolved,” Schwertner said.

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