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Davis Takes Friendly Fire on Gun Issue

Laura Buckman
Texas Tribune
State Sen. Wendy Davis announces her campaign for governor in front of a crowd of supporters in Haltom City on Oct. 3, 2013.

State Sen. Wendy Davis has taken plenty of shots from conservatives for proposing new gun restrictions, but on Thursday she faced blowback from liberals and fellow Democrats over gun rights. 

Sparking the fallout: Davis’ embrace of so-called open-carry laws, which would allow Texans to pack pistols on their hips. Under current law, people licensed to carry handguns must keep them concealed.

“I’m surprised by it. I don’t think it’s a good signal to our children in this state that people can open carry something that is so dangerous and intimidating to others,” said Frances Schenkkan, board member ofTexas Gun Sense, which opposes open-carry legislation. “It sends a message that this is the norm and children are not as able to get away from it.”

While the position essentially mirrors the stance on open carry taken by her likely Republican opponent, Attorney General Greg Abbott, it puts at her odds with statements from her own Texas Democratic Party and her fellow senator, Leticia Van De Putte of San Antonio, the Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor.

Van De Putte looked flummoxed Thursday morning in a Texas Tribune interview when asked about the revelation — reported overnight by The Associated Press — that Davis wanted to allow Texans to carry firearms in public.

“The discussions that I have had with the law enforcement back home, they think that open carry does not make their job any easier, and I’m with them,” Van De Putte said. “This is one where Wendy and I are on a different page.”

Texas Democratic Party Chairman Gilberto Hinojosa also said he did not support open carry, but noted that many Democrats in Texas are members of the National Rifle Association and have been strong supporters of expanding gun rights here.

“We’re not in favor of it,” he said. “The position that we’re taking at the Democratic Party today, we don’t think that promotes the safe use of weapons in Texas." Hinojosa said Davis could lose support from some gun control advocates, but he predicted liberals would keep up their “intensity” for her campaign because they’re more concerned with bread-and-butter issues such as education and health care.

Privately, though, some of Davis’ top supporters said they were caught off guard and disappointed by her embrace of a position that has in the past sparked divisions even among traditional supporters of strong or expanded gun rights.  

And it seemed doubtful that Davis would attract much support from pro-gun groups.

“Wendy Davis is as pro-gun as Ann Richards,” Alice Tripp, director of the Texas State Rifle Association, said in a message from her Twitter account. Richards, the last Democratic governor in Texas, famously opposed a referendum calling for a concealed handgun law, and many said it contributed to her defeat in 1994.

The National Rifle Association was even harsher.

“This is an election-year conversion for Wendy Davis. Voting records speak volumes. As a state legislator, Wendy earned an F-rating from the NRA by voting against the Second Amendment repeatedly," said NRA spokeswoman Catherine Mortensen. "Her about-face lacks credibility. Texans know that.”

The Abbott campaign issued a written statement questioning the move, saying it would not help her "be a straight shooter when it comes to the facts of her anti-gun record."

As a member of the Fort Worth City Council, Davis fought a lonely battle to require background checks at city-held gun shows, and she told the Tribune in the summer that she would “happily” sign a bill making that mandatory statewide if elected governor. She also opposed efforts opening up college campuses to people with concealed handguns licenses. Texas is one of five states that specifically bans the public display of handguns, according to the pro-gun group

But in a questionnaire submitted to the AP, Davis said she supports making Texas an open-carry state. 

“Do you support 'open carry' of handguns in Texas and why or why not?” the AP asked her, according to the Davis campaign, which provided a copy of the questionnaire.

Davis’s answer: “Yes. And state government should be sensitive to private property owners (including governmental, education, religious, health care and other institutions) to determine whether to allow open carry on their own properties.”

Davis was also asked to describe her “vision” of how to implement open carry in Texas. She said people who want to openly carry their firearms should be subject to the same laws and restrictions that concealed handgun permit owners face. That would include background checks and training requirements.

“That should help ensure that only mentally stable, law-abiding citizens may carry whether concealed or open,” she wrote.

Under that scenario, Texans could openly carry firearms into the state Capitol, where people who have a concealed handgun permit are allowed quicker access — without even going through metal detectors — into the building.

Not all of Davis’ bedrock supporters were surprised or upset by her embrace of a position that puts her far to the right of most Democrats. 

Wealthy Austin philanthropist Marc Winkelman, a Davis donor and supporter who has backed gun restrictions, said her newly articulated position on open carry hasn’t shaken his enthusiasm for the Fort Worth senator.

“I don’t think I would ever support any liberalizing of gun laws in America personally, but I don’t see a contradiction in supporting a candidate who supports open carry when I don’t,” he said. “It doesn’t surprise me that she would have this position as a candidate for governor, that she would support things like this. … This isn’t even on the list of issues that I am particularly concerned about.’’

Jay Root is a native of Liberty. He never knew any reporters growing up, and he has never taken a journalism class in his life. But somehow he got hooked on the news business. It all started when he walked into the offices of The Daily Texan, his college newspaper, during his last year at the University of Texas in 1987. He couldn't the resist the draw: it was the the biggest collection of misfits ever assembled. After graduating, he took a job at a Houston chemical company and realized it wasn't for him. Soon he was applying for an unpaid internship at the Houston Post in 1990, and it turned into a full-time job that same year. He has been a reporter ever since. He has covered natural disasters, live music and Texas politics — not necessarily in that order. He was Austin bureau chief of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram for a dozen years, most of them good. He also covered politics and the Legislature for The Associated Press before joining the staff of the Tribune.