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[Photo: Ralph Barrera/Austin American-Statesman via AP]

Gun Policy

To Keep Firearms Secure, Texas Bill Appeals to Concealed Gun Carriers’ Wallets

Buy a safe, get a discount.

For years, Texas gun owners have groused about the application fee for a license to carry a handgun. The state charges $140 for a new license — enough money to buy about 750 rounds of 9mm ammunition — and $70 for a renewal, required every five years.

State Representative Joe Moody of El Paso, a Democrat, introduced a measure to lower that fee, but there’s a catch: Gun owners would have to prove that they have the means to safely store their firearms.

The proposal, crafted by the advocacy group Texas Gun Sense and introduced in November, would reduce the licensing fee by as much as $40 if the applicant proves he or she purchased a safe, case, cabinet or “other device” designed to lock up their gun. If adopted, the law would also instruct the Texas Department of Public Safety to create a firearm-safety education program, and distribute pamphlets to gun dealers to then give to customers whenever they buy a firearm.

The push to reward safety-conscious gun owners reflects a carefully calibrated political maneuver in a state where guns are as woven into the culture as chili and cowboy boots.

“We thought, ‘How can we start to tiptoe into this issue with a bill that wouldn’t necessarily mandate anything but would incentivize people?” Andrea Brauer, the executive director of Texas Gun Sense, told The Trace.

The proposal, she said, is aimed at “rewarding best practices for gun safety. People shouldn’t be able to argue with that.”

Concealed carry licensing fees have become a popular target for lawmakers around the South. In March, Florida Governor Rick Scott signed a measure trimming the state’s fee from $70 to $60 for new applications and from $60 to $50 for renewals. Tennessee followed suit by slashing the price of a lifetime permit from $500 to $315, a savings that took effect on Sunday. When the new legislative session commences in Virginia next week, Delegate Scott Lingamfelter, a Republican, will push to eliminate the $35 fee that concealed carry applicants pay for a background check.

Moody’s proposal will be one of dozens of gun-related bills up for debate when Texas lawmakers kick off an intense 140-day legislative session January 10. Three bills would forbid state agencies from enforcing federal firearm regulations. Another would let superintendents and other school officials carry weapons into board meetings. Because the Texas legislature meets for regular business only once every two years, lawmakers will be rushing to get their bills heard before the session ends May 29.

More than 1.14 million Texans have a license to carry a handgun in public, a 342 percent increase from 2006, when about 258,000 had a license, according to the state’s Department of Public Safety. State laws enacted last year allow license holders to bring concealed weapons on college campuses and openly carry firearms in most public establishments.

Moody’s proposal focuses on keeping guns out of the hands of children and teenagers. The most recent statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that 505 people died in accidental shootings in 2013 — or more than one per day — most of them in a home. Like many areas of gun policy, the research on safe storage laws is scant, but they have been linked to declines in unintentional gun injuries among young people.  

Unsecured firearms also provide easy opportunities for thieves. As part of its continuing investigation into gun thefts, The Trace has obtained statistics on reported gun thefts from police departments in a dozen Texas cities, including Austin and El Paso. Collectively these cities have tallied at least 50,904 guns lost or stolen since 2006, or 14 per day. By definition these guns fall into the hands of criminals, fueling underground markets and violence.

The proposal would become moot if lawmakers succeed in scrapping handgun licensing fees altogether. Republican legislation to that effect has already been filed in the state House and Senate. Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick threw his weight behind the Senate version in November, denouncing Texas’s fee as among the highest in the country. Gun owners, he said, shouldn’t “be deprived of their right to self-protection” because of “onerous” charges. The National Rifle Association also signaled its support, noting that the Senate version has a low bill number, a sign that lawmakers consider it a high priority.

Another measure, championed by State Representative Jonathan Stickland, a Republican from Bedford, would allow people to carry handguns without any permit at all, a policy known as “constitutional carry.” (Under Stickland’s bill, people who want to carry guns in public also wouldn’t have to pass a proficiency course that is currently required of license applicants.) Stickland said in a recent interview that his GOP colleagues would pay a political price if they failed to adopt the bill. But observers like Larry Arnold, legislative director of the Texas Concealed Handgun Association, have doubts about whether lawmakers will even let constitutional carry come up for a vote in 2017, given that a similar measure provoked intense debate during the last legislative session before ultimately stalling.

“We had two fairly large bills last time,” Arnold said, alluding to the open and campus carry laws. “It may take another couple of legislatures before they move up to something as big as constitutional carry. But given the momentum behind the fact that other states are doing it, it’s certainly a possibility.”

Even if lawmakers embrace Moody’s secure storage incentive as a compromise, the educational program mandated by the proposal could be a sticking point. The bill says only that the program should encourage safety and raise awareness about gun handling and secure storage practices.

Arnold told The Trace that such a program is unnecessary because groups like his and the NRA already offer safety instruction. He said he is also wary about the program becoming a vehicle for gun control.

“We’d like to know who’s going to do that and what’s going to be in it,” Arnold said. “Some of the educational programs we’ve seen basically say, ‘Don’t own firearms.’”  

Repeated attempts to contact Representative Moody for comment were unsuccessful.

Lawmakers mulling measures to reduce or eliminate the licensing fee are forced to wrestle with the prospect of losing tens of millions of dollars in annual revenue. Officials have already sounded alarms about deep cuts in the next budget as the state grapples with unexpectedly high Medicaid costs and a cooling economy. A spokesman for the Texas comptroller told The Trace that handgun licensing fees generated $24.5 million in income during the last fiscal year alone.

Arnold acknowledged the difficulties in replacing that revenue and said that reducing the licensing fee might come at the cost of cuts to other programs. He said his organization would be taking a closer look at how Moody’s bill is worded, and stopped short of rejecting the proposal rewarding secure storage practices as a palatable compromise. But he did suggest that encouraging people to lock up their guns could be a mistake.

“That keeps you from getting them when you need them,” he said.