FORT WORTH, Texas — In the decade since he opened a Fort Worth-area coffeehouse, David Clarke never really cared whether a customer packed a pistol beneath his jacket. Carrying a concealed weapon has been legal in this state since 1996, but Clarke and thousands of other restaurants, grocery stores, churches and movie theaters were free to engage in a version of “don’t ask, don’t tell.”
That changed Jan. 1. For the first time in a century, under the new open-carry law, Texans can legally tote their holstered handguns in plain view — unless establishments post signs that specifically prohibit the practice. As a result, from Texarkana to El Paso, businesses and institutions have been forced to contemplate the effect of having a holstered .45 on the hip of someone in the next restaurant booth.
Clarke, like many others, reluctantly took a public stand on the combustible issue.
“Customers told us that if we didn’t post, they would consider not coming back,” he said. “It forced me to make a decision.”
So he banned open carry in his two coffeehouses. He’s not alone. Hundreds of other Texas businesses, the largest percentage of them restaurants, have done the same, according to lists compiled by pro- and anti-gun groups in the state. With the bans has come a wave of confusion and concern among gun owners of an unintended consequence: that the open-carry law will prompt more bans on concealed weapons.
About 4 percent of the state’s 27 million people, about 940,000, possess the concealed-handgun licenses that are required to openly carry. But where they actually can is less clear.
So far, the supermarket chain HEB has banned open carry, while another, Kroger’s, has not. At the Fort Worth Stock Show, one of the state’s showcase celebrations of its Western heritage, open carry was allowed on the streets and in exhibit halls but not in the professional rodeo arena or in livestock barns, where young people were huddled with their animals.
The new law somewhat notoriously did not exempt the state’s mental hospital from open carry.
“We’re following the law, but we have signage asking people not to openly carry at our hospitals,” said Carrie Williams, a spokeswoman for the Texas Department of Health Services, which oversees the mental hospitals.
Public institutions in the state must permit open carry, just as the state’s public universities must follow a new state law that allows concealed carry on campus, while private colleges can choose to ban it, as Baylor University did this past week.
The Roman Catholic dioceses of El Paso and Dallas have banned open carry in their churches.
“It is difficult,” wrote Dallas Bishop Kevin Farrell, “to see how this new law . . . can accomplish anything other than cause people to feel threatened and intimidated.”
But the 2,500-member First Baptist Church in Arlington decided not to post signs banning open carry.
“We are not adopting any political position on gun control,” the Rev. Dennis Wiles said in a pastoral letter to his congregants. “We are certainly not encouraging anyone to bring guns to church.”
Even in the west Texas city of Lubbock, as conservative and pro-gun a place as anywhere in the state, the open-carry law has put merchants in an “awkward” position, said Eddie McBride, president and chief executive of the Lubbock Chamber of Commerce.
“Even when you have a lot of gun rights enthusiasts, you have to make sure you are doing the right thing for your customers,” McBride said. “That is the awkward position a lot of businesses find themselves in.”
But in Fort Worth, Clarke said he has had only one complaint after prohibiting open carry.
“He said he would no longer frequent my business,” Clarke said. “That’s not a problem. I have hundreds of customers. It was very interesting. The only reaction I got when putting the sign up was from two police officers. They applauded me. They said it was not in their interests to have people going around openly with guns in their holsters.”
Critics say that the law was meant as more of a political statement by the gun lobby and the Republican-controlled state government than a practical attempt to enhance the lives of gun owners.
“It was a provocation. That’s my view,” said Ed Scruggs, a board member of Texas Gun Sense, an Austin-based group that advocates stricter gun-control laws. “The gun lobby holds a special place among conservatives, probably more so in this state than any other. They just keep pushing it further and further. We’re not talking about safety. We’re not talking about preventing the accidental shooting of children. We’re not talking about any of that.”
In passing the law, Texas lawmakers pointed out that 44 other states allow a form of open carry.
“For a state that highly values freedom, this antiquated law needed an update,” said a sponsor of open carry, state Sen. Craig Estes, a Republican from Wichita Falls. “Our concealed-handgun license holders have proved themselves to be responsible, law-abiding citizens, and it is my firm belief that they should have the right to carry openly. Whether or not they choose to exercise this right is entirely up to them.”
Some of those concealed-license holders, though, are fuming at a possible effect of the new law: Businesses that ban openly carried firearms may choose to ban concealed ones, as well.
“I truly wish that open-carry supporters would admit that they were wrong and that there is a problem,” Charles Cotton, a National Rifle Association board member, wrote in an online forum. Because of the new law, “someone’s ability to show their handgun to everyone will have cost me the ability to defend myself.”
C.J. Grisham, founder and president of the 50,000-member Open Carry Texas, dismissed those concerns as a clash between “old-school support for gun rights, where they capitulated to the powers-that-be to exercise some of their gun rights, and the new school, where we are tired of having our rights mealy-mouthed away.”
He offered his recent experience to illustrate why the law is necessary.
“Just the other day when I was eating lunch, it was chilly outside but warm inside and I wanted to be able to take off my jacket,” Grisham said. “Now I can take my jacket off. It’s about protecting gun owners from becoming criminals just because that piece of fabric is not covering up their self-defense gun.
“And even if it’s just one person out of 27 million, it’s that one person who needs to have a choice to open carry or conceal,” he said.
“The likelihood you’d even see somebody openly carry is extremely low,” Grisham said.
What’s more, the mayhem some feared with open carry has not come to pass. Since the first of the year, Houston police have answered a handful of calls, but there have been no arrests associated with the law, spokesman Kese Smith said. That has been the case statewide.
“I don’t know if ‘surprised’ is the right word,” Smith said. “We’re very pleased that the call volume we anticipated has not come to fruition.”