(Cross-posted from ACLU of Texas' Liberty Blog.)
Roddy Stinson of the San Antonio Express News had a column Sunday ("State's new gun-toting law has surprise backer: ACLU," Feb. 5) remarking on ACLU of Texas' support for a new law presuming drivers are "traveling" and therefore legally carrying a gun in their car if they are (1) in a private motor vehicle, (2) not engaged in criminal activity, (3) not prohibited by law from possessing a firearm, (4) not a member of a "criminal street gang" and (5) not carrying the handgun "in plain view." Wrote Stinson:
Somebody check the weather in Hades. Snowflakes must be falling on Beelzebub's head.
Whether this conservative turn is an ACLU aberration or a step in the right-wing direction won't be known for a while. But news of the organization's loose-gun-control stance will surely cause a few spluttering Sunday morning readers to lose their coffee.
If you say so, Roddy. I should mention up front that the Texas State Rifle Association and the National Rifle Association were the real powers behind this legislation. ACLU of Texas supported the bill, but those groups did all the heavy lifting and deserve the lion's share of credit. That said, I was proud of ACLU of Texas for supporting the legislation -- to me it shows the group is about protecting everybody's rights, not just liberals or conservatives.
Stinson seemed surprised I'd think that legislators wanted people to be able to carry weapons even when they were going short distances, not just on the "open road." But as I also told him, I based that on legislators' comments at the public hearing in the House of Representatives in support of the bill, not just on my own say-so.
Without interpreting the law as including shorter trips, it would be legal to own a gun in your home, legal to possess it at a gun range, but illegal to carry it in your car from your home to the gun range. That's just an irrational conundrum, penalizing law abiding gun owners simply for carrying legal property in their car.
That's what legislators were trying to fix, as far as I could tell, and it's certainly why ACLU of Texas supported this statute. The new law rationalizes gun owners rights while giving law enforcement plenty of tools to arrest someone who legally shouldn't be carrying a gun. I'm glad ACLU of Texas supported it.
Nobody knows how the courts will interpret the new law, but the legislative intent on this bill isn't hard to discover. Here's an account of that hearing I wrote afterward on Grits for Breakfast:
Testifying on behalf of ACLU of Texas at a meeting of the Texas House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee, I spoke in favor of HB 823 by Keel, which I discussed [earlier], allowing Texas drivers to carry a firearm in their vehicle. The National Rifle Association was there in force behind it. Like Sputnik from the Motorcycle Rights Association, though, I complained about a change in the committee substitute that defined "traveling" as only occurring when a driver "crosses or intends to cross a county line."
Such language would invite drivers to lie to police officers, I told the committee, since the only defense to carrying a gun in one's car would be to say you're preparing to travel to the next county. Rep. Debbie Riddle surprised us both, I'd guess, by agreeing with me, declaring that she lived four minutes from the Harris County line north of her home, but didn't feel the need to carry a firearm traveling into Montgomery County. By contrast, she could travel for two hours south through Houston, depending on traffic, without reaching a county line, and she felt more like she needed personal protection for that trip.
I argued that current law encouraged unnecessary and unproductive vehicle searches because police officers considered even legal guns contraband. If guns were legal to own they should be legal to transport, and gun owners shouldn't be harassed. The current statute is an example of what Michael Quinn Sullivan of the Texas Public Policy Foundation has called the "criminalization of civil life," I told them. Public safety isn't the issue. If I were packing a gun in the committee meeting that evening, I said, the committeemembers wouldn't be one bit less safe because I don't want to shoot anybody. Similarly, police wouldn't be less safe because law abiding gun owners don't pose a risk, and they're already in jeopardy from the bad guys.
Chairman Terry Keel, R-Austin, the bill sponsor, said the definition of "traveling" for the purpose of carrying a firearm in your vehicle had been debated for years but never adequately resolved, and asked how I would solve it. I suggested deleting the county line nonsense, simply defining "traveling" as when someone is in a private motor vehicle, is not "otherwise engaged in criminal activity," and is "otherwise entitled or eligible to possess a firearm" - language that was already in his bill. In essence, that means that if you legally own a gun and don't intend to use it to commit a crime, you could legally transport it wherever you want in your car. After conferring a moment with his colleagues, Keel announced he would accept ACLU's suggestion. I replied that he should take it and run with it.
Here's the link to the video from the hearing (the bill starts at 9:55 p.m.). See for yourself if you think I'm accurately interpreting what legislators intended. I just don't know how else one could view Rep. Riddle's comments declaring she wanted to be able to carry protection driving from the suburbs into Houston.
Texas senators added the part about the gun not being in plain view because they worried about incidents where someone might be in a drive-through at a fast food venue or a bank where the gun could be mistaken as serving some nefarious purpose. I doubt such mundane considerations would have come into play if they meant that guns in vehicles should only be legal on "the open road."
For more on Texas ACLU's efforts to monitor implementation of this law, see this earlier Liberty Blog post.