AUSTIN, Texas ― Few people are more enthusiastic about carrying firearms than Mike Cargill. The owner of the Central Texas Gun Works often carries three, two concealed, plus one holstered outside his belt.
He is also enthusiastic about firearms education. Even after the Republican-dominated state legislature passed a “constitutional charge” law, which allows Texans to carry both open and concealed weapons without obtaining a license, Cargill continued to provide classes and range of qualifications for the License to Carry (LTC) program, now optional. Cargill says a license offers many benefits, one of which is helping people navigate the state’s complicated gun laws.
And with Texas becoming one of about half the states in the country that consider carrying a gun a constitutional right, it seems people are getting confused by those complicated laws. Several of Cargill’s students over the past year and a half have enrolled in an LTC class in hopes of avoiding a conviction for illegally carrying a gun, usually after taking a gun somewhere they shouldn’t have.
Glock pistols are displayed during the National Rifle Association (NRA) annual meeting at the George R. Brown Convention Center in Houston, Texas on May 28, 2022.
When Cargill checked the Texas Department of Public Safety website, it found that its experience was not an anomaly. Convictions for illegal carrying of weapons skyrocketed in the state, from 1,049 in 2020 to almost 7,000 last year — an increase of 550% and the highest number per away since 2016, last year of complete data. The state adopted the constitutional transportation law in September 2021.
“Yes, it is your right to carry a gun,” Cargill said. “But you have to know how to carry that gun. If not, that’s a problem.”
no obvious explanation
It is not clear why convictions for illegal carrying of weapons have increased so much. HuffPost reached out to several local law enforcement agencies for a response. Few responded. Those that did hadn’t noticed the trend, though some agreed with Cargill that the mix-up might help explain it.
The “apparent increase in illegal carrying cases across the state is alarming,” Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg wrote in an email to HuffPost.
“In Harris County, it appears that we have filed more than one charge against some suspects, indicating that defendants released on bond have been charged with the same offense more than once,” Ogg wrote. “In the rest of the state, they may have the same problem or it could be something else, like a lack of education about constitutional carry laws or other laws related to firearms ownership.”
Although carrying without a permit sounds simple, gun laws are complicated. Even under the new law, places like airports, courthouses, hospitals and schools generally don’t allow guns. Private companies can also prohibit people from bringing in weapons, either by displaying a sign or warning people verbally.
In theory, you can’t bring a gun into a place that makes more than 51% of its revenue from alcohol. But in practice, you can bring a gun into a bar if the bar’s liquor license classifies it as a restaurant, which requires checking the Texas Liquor Control website.
Carry without a permit added a new layer of complexity by creating two classes of people who are allowed to carry firearms: those who are licensed and those who are constitutionally dependent.
The most commonly cited advantages of obtaining a license are that it allows the holder to carry concealed weapons in most other states, and license holders only have to submit federal background checks for application and renewal, instead of every time they buy a gun.
But the law favors LTC holders in many other ways. Carrying a weapon with a blood alcohol content of up to 0.08 is legal for license holders. Without one, drinking alcohol while carrying a weapon is illegal. An LTC exempts the licensee from the restriction to carry a weapon within 1,000 feet of a school under federal law (although carrying one inside a school building is generally still illegal).
The classes that were once required explain all these details. Those who carry a gun because they read a news article that says they can may not be aware, for example, that drawing a gun while inside a car and leaving it in plain sight is a crime.
Still, it’s unclear how the mix-up alone would translate into more gun charges. If someone is doing a decent job of concealing the gun, they’re not likely to get caught.
Instead, many people are charged with illegally carrying a gun only after police arrest them for something else, according to attorney Shane Phelps, usually drinking and driving or possession of marijuana.
The only people Phelps regularly sees illegally carrying a gun as their sole charge are felons caught with guns. But Texas counts the offense of possession of a weapon despite a felony conviction separately from illegal possession of a weapon.
“That’s a bit of a shocking statistic to me, I don’t have an explanation for it,” Phelpshe said, referring to the increased charges. “It’s really hard right now in Texas to get arrested just for carrying a gun.”
The introduction of carry without permission may not account for the change, given that it can take several months for defendants to go from arraignment to conviction. The data increase could also be due to a historic and sustained surge in gun sales that began during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Harris County, for example, showed a clear increase in illegal possession of a gun since 2019, with the number of people charged more than doubling in two years to 4,454. This year’s incomplete numbers were on track to slightly exceed last year.
More weapons at airports
The one group of people who are clearly charged more often with illegally carrying weapons are those who attempt to bring weapons onto planes in their carry-on luggage. Gun seizures at Texas airports nearly doubled in 2021 compared to the previous year, according to data from the Transportation Security Administration.
A sign warns airline travelers not to take their firearm through the TSA checkpoint on July 28, 2022, during a media event on traveling with firearms at Brownsville-South Padre International Airport Island in Brownsville, Texas.
Those numbers reflect a national trend, said Patricia Mancha, a spokeswoman for TSA Southwest.
“Last year, the TSA broke a 20-year record: We found more guns in carry-on luggage than in any year since we’ve existed,” Mancha said, noting that the guns seized were typically loaded, often with a single chamber. . “If you have your gun, we really want to remind you to pack it in your checked baggage.”
But those cases alone don’t explain the sharp rise in illegal-carry convictions in Texas. The TSA recorded 1,055 firearm seizures last year in Texas, up from 570 the year before. Even if every one of those cases resulted in a conviction, they would still be a long way from explaining the increase of nearly 6,000 cases.
The case of guido herrera
While the trend has largely gone unnoticed, a case of illegal transportation made national news.
On February 5, a man wearing a studded leather mask and Punisher T-shirt entered the Galleria mall in Houston with a semi-automatic rifle slung over his shoulder and a Bible in hand. Kendrick Simpo, a police officer working as a security officer, saw the man walking towards a children’s dance event and knocked him down. When police arrested the man, Guido Herrera, they found 120 rounds of ammunition stuffed in the cargo pockets of his pants, along with a concealed .45 caliber handgun.
Herrera did not face any gun possession charges that day, as it has long been legal in Texas to openly carry long guns.
Signs at the mall warned people not to bring weapons in, but Herrera’s attorney, Armen Merjanian, said carrying without a permit protected his client because it was unclear whether the restrictions applied to the mall in general or to stores. individual.
Herrera did nothing wrong, Merjanian said. He went to the mall to buy a hat. He brought the rifle because he didn’t want anyone to steal it from his car. The leather mask covered his nose and mouth to protect him from COVID. The Punisher’s skull logo identified Herrera not as a threat, but as a Blue Lives Matter guy.
“If you look at the cartoon, [the Punisher] supports law enforcement,” Merjanian said. “Guido had no intention of doing any kind of harm.”
Police charged Herrera with misdemeanor disorderly conduct, accusing him of brandishing the rifle to threaten others.
About a month after Galleria’s arrest, Herrera went to the FBI’s Houston office and asked to speak with the director. A gun was in his lap when he entered the parking lot.
This time, the police charged Herrera with illegally carrying a weapon for leaving the gun unholstered in plain sight.
Herrera pleaded guilty to illegally carrying a weapon, then a jury found him guilty of disorderly conduct in the Galleria mall incident.
Those crimes, both misdemeanors, earned him an 18-month prison sentence. Herrera, an Argentine citizen who has lived in the United States since he was a child, lost his lawful permanent resident status due to the convictions and now faces the prospect of deportation.
Possible deportation aside, critics saw Herrera’s sentence as exceptionally light for someone arrested on suspicion of shooting up a children’s dance event.
And had he taken the time to obtain a License to Carry, Herrera could have understood the state’s gun laws to avoid a conviction for illegally carrying a weapon.
Cargill, the LTC instructor, suspects that this year’s statistics will show that many more people have broken the law by carrying a gun without a license. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott signed the constitutional carryover law into law in June of last year, and the state didn’t implement it until September, making 2022 the first full year under constitutional carryover.
“More people carry guns, but they don’t take classes or know what the laws are,” Cargill said. “The data speaks for itself.”