At the start of the new year, Houston, Texas, with a population of over two million people, will be the largest metropolitan area in the United States to allow those with the appropriate permits to openly carry their firearms in public. On Wednesday evening, a group of local law enforcement officials held a panel discussion in a drab government building to field questions about the mandate and, unofficially, discuss the many things that could go wrong.
A shooting in Colorado Springs, Colorado, on Halloween afternoon added a sense of urgency to the event. Colorado is an open carry state, and it was later revealed that a woman had called 911 before 33-year-old Noah Harpham killed three people in the city’s streets, telling the dispatcher that Harpham was holding a rifle and looked suspicious. Citing the law, the dispatcher explained Harpham was within his rights, and the call was not designated a top priority by the local police.
As the meeting got underway in Houston, the law enforcement officials, seated behind a green rectangular table, did not exactly put the room at ease. “As a police officer, it is so complex,” Chief Charles A. McClelland, Jr., announced. “I don’t really understand all the nuances of the law.” City Attorney Donna Edmundson agreed. “Unfortunately,” she said, “this law wasn’t written very well. It’s not very clear.” District Attorney Devon Anderson conceded, “This is complicated.” Later, she admitted to only learning that morning to which government buildings the law applied.
The first question cut right to the heart of the matter. A man with salt-and-pepper hair stood up and asked, “If a person is carrying his weapon openly, how does a police officer determine if he is legal at that point?”
McClelland said an officer has no way of knowing unless he asks. The DA chimed in to explain that, while open carry passed in Texas, so-called permitless carry did not. She elaborated, “So an officer can walk up to you, if you have a gun in your holster, and say, ‘I’d like to see your I.D. and your CHL [concealed handgun license].’ And you shall produce those things.”
The questioner pressed on. “If I think somebody is just walking around with a gun, should I just do a 911?”
“It’s certainly going to happen,” the chief said. “Just because you do see someone now who is openly carrying, it doesn’t mean they’re in violation of the law.” He went on: “My advice would be to take some observation and see what the person is doing. And where are they?” He described a suspicious scenario. “It’s 90 degrees outside and as they’re openly carrying they put on an all-weather coat to go into Wells Fargo Bank.” McClelland then assured the questioner that, if he ever feels alarmed enough to call the police, “we’re gonna come.”
The main thing is, in Colorado Springs, at what moment did he become a threat? When he shot a person on a bike, a woman in her face, and a woman in her chest?”
It was a mother who prompted what might have been the most poignant exchange of the evening. “Most of us, as parents, have told our children that, if you see someone with a gun, run, scream,” She said. “What do you suggest we tell our children, who might be out and about without us, when they see a man with a gun, what do they do? Because they’re scared. They’re very scared.”
The DA appeared sympathetic. “That’s hard, because I have kids too,” she said, fumbling for an appropriate answer.
The mom persisted. “The main thing is, in Colorado Springs, at what moment did he become a threat? When he shot a person on a bike, a woman in her face, and a woman in her chest?”
The DA said, “Let me say this, and I’m taking a chance here but I’m going to say it: if you see a civilian with a gun in a school building, that’s a 911. That’s a prohibited place, inside a school building.” She continued, “You can carry around a school, on the sidewalk, in a parking lot — that kind of thing. But that would give me pause.”
The mom appeared dumfounded. “So I tell my child, if it’s outside a school, it’s okay?”
The city attorney interjected. “Depends on where it is,” she said. “There’s certain places where you can’t carry no matter whether you have a license or not. So it’s just going to depend on where you are.”
“That’s really hard on the kids,” the mother said.
“I know,” the DA acknowledged.
“Yeah, it is,” the chief said. He had nothing else to add.