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Strap on Those Sidearms: Open Carry Arrives in Texas

Police officers, along with 311 and 911 operators, are bracing themselves for a new year when Lone Star residents, with the proper licenses, will be able to strap on their sidearms in plain sight and do almost everything they normally do in Texas.

The state’s Open Carry law goes into effect on New Year’s Day.

There are a lot of people in Texas, including police officers, who are not at all happy with the new law. Many are scared to death of so many guns, on so many belts.

However, it is not a carte blanche for gun owners.

First, the exceptions to Open Carry: It isn’t just anyone who will be able to carry a revolver or semi-automatic handgun in plain view in Texas. To “open carry” the gun owner has to have a concealed handgun license (CHL) or an LTC (license to carry).

Texans can’t pack heat inside federal buildings, courthouses, amusement parks, churches or other houses of worship, sporting events, jails or businesses that make 51 percent of their revenue from alcohol sales.

But other that that, as long as a Texan is licensed, he or she will be able to stroll down the sidewalk or drive to the supermarket with a revolver or semi-automatic handgun in plain view.

Emergency phone operators are ready for the next-to-worst case scenario. The worst case would be open gun battles on the streets of Laredo and other Texas communities. The next-to-worst-case would be 911 and 311 phones ringing off the hook with calls from Texans scared by the sight of their neighbors armed to the teeth.

There are bound to be tens of thousands of people in Dallas alone who are not only going to be afraid of people with guns, but will be angered by the sight of their holstered weapons.

A University of Texas/Texas Tribune poll released in February 2015 showed only 32 percent of Texans supported Open Carry. The rest, 68 percent, said they wanted either no legal handguns in public or a continuation of the current concealed carry law.

“Half of Republicans want to stick with concealed. Unlicensed open carry is a starkly minority position, with only 10 percent of support,”  at UT-Austin and co-directs the poll, told the Texas Tribune.

Dallas officials have tried to get those who might be described as “gun unfriendly” ready for the new reality by publishing a guide to answer frequently asked questions. They also released a video in December explaining the Open Carry law and when those without sidearms should or should not call for help.

Above all, the narrator of the video, who said it is understandable that those without guns might be “nervous or even scared,” asked for tolerance from the unarmed.

The spokeswoman in the video said Dallas residents should only call 911 if they see someone taking their gun out of a holster, acting like they are drunk or high, or “obviously committing a crime or acting in a reckless or suspicious manner.”

The Frequently Asked Questions guide published by the city of Dallas advises people who are thinking about calling 911 to “take the time to observe what the person is doing. Ask yourself whether the person is doing anything that looks suspicious.”

Here’s where it can get tricky. The FAQ guide also points out that just because the person is openly carrying a handgun does not mean he has no right to do so. It will be up to police officers to ask.

That means Dallas police officers and their counterparts throughout Texas have new challenges awaiting them in 2016.

Seventy-five percent of police chiefs across Texas came out against the law in a survey conducted by the Texas Police Chiefs Association.

The Dallas Police Department has used videos and bulletins to train officers about how to respond to the sight of people walking down the street with handguns in plain view, how to investigate reports of people with guns, and how to calm concerned residents.

That could all lead to confrontations between police and people carrying guns. The Open Carry law gives police the right to demand to see a CHL or LTC. Officers also have more authority to disarm someone who has a revolver or semi-automatic handgun than they would if a citizen was carrying a rifle or shotgun in plain view.

There is also a concern that anti-gun groups will flood 911 and 311 with calls demanding information about Open Carry, or reporting gun crimes that turn out to be hoaxes.

Like the Dallas PD, the Austin Police Department has been conducting Open Carry training sessions for its officers. But Commander Andy Michael told Fox 7 TV in Austin that his department is better prepared than most police units.

The Austin PD has been dealing with gun-rights protesters, who came to the event armed with antique handguns and rifles, at the state Capitol for years.

Michael believes his people, and most police officers in Texas, will cope with the new Open Carry law and those carrying guns on the streets of their cities. It isn’t the people who are showing off their guns who worry the cops.

For the same reason, he also said Texans who are not armed should not have much to worry about when they see people carrying guns on their belts or in shoulder holsters if only because it is the good guys who will carry their guns in the open, not the bad guys.

“Most of the criminal element you are not going to find to be openly carrying anyway, so I think if I were a patrol officer and was working a street to see someone openly carrying, in a hip holster or shoulder holster, wouldn’t cause me much more concern,” said Michael. “Quite honestly, I would probably assume that was a license holder.”

Still, with so many Texans, including their local chiefs of police, who campaigned against Open Carry before it was approved by the state’s Legislature and signed by Gov. Greg Abbott (R), Daron Shaw, a professor of government at UT-Austin, noted that “if I’m from Connecticut, it might look like 50 degrees of crazy.”