Texas, a place where guns are right at home
Rick Jervis, USA TODAY, February 18, 2013
BEAUMONT, TEXAS—Pastor James McAbee believes the Scriptures can tame temptation and wash away sins.
But he’ll tell you that nothing repels true evil like a well-placed, loaded Glock .40-caliber pistol.
McAbee, known around town as the “Pistol-Packing Preacher,” keeps his loaded Glock in a holster tucked in his pants at all times, whether making a bank deposit or preaching from the pulpit of the Lighthouse Worship Center, an Assembly of God church where he pastors.
When not preaching, McAbee offers a $50 one-day concealed weapons course to gun enthusiasts. Since the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in December, when a 20-year-old man shot and killed 20 students and six staffers before shooting himself, he’s offered the classes for free to teachers.
It’s the Texas way, McAbee, 36, says. “We believe an armed society is a peaceful society. This is Texas, and everybody has a gun.”
Nearly two months after the massacre in Connecticut, renewed calls for tighter gun controls are rising in the nation’s capital and many states, as polls show growing public support for some restrictions.
Yet here in Texas, which has a long-cherished history of independence and an unshakeable pro-gun culture, talk of limits on weapons is met with resolute defiance:
Republican Gov. Rick Perry said last month that the effort by the “political left” and news media to exploit the Connecticut massacre to push for gun-control measures “disgusts me.”
State Rep. Jason Villalba, a Republican from Dallas, has proposed putting an armed “marshal” in every public school. Republican state Rep. Steve Toth, who represents an area north of Houston, has vowed to make it a felony to enforce federal gun bans within Texas’ borders.
Despite an abundance of weapons, the state’s death rate from firearms—11 per 100,000 residents—ranked 23rd nationally in 2010, the last year such statistics are available.
Texas’ romance with firearms runs nearly 200 years deep, dating back to when it was part of Mexico, says Steve Blake, director of the Firearms Museum of Texas in Brownwood, 130 miles southwest of Fort Worth.
Earliest settlers to Texas arrived around the 1820s from Louisiana and Tennessee carrying muzzle-loading rifles to fend off snakes, wolves and hostile bands of Comanche Indians, Blake says. Guns continued to play a prominent role throughout Texas’ history, including its independence from Mexico in 1836 and the Mexican-American War in 1846.
After the Civil War, when most of the South was in ruins, ex-Confederate soldiers—and their guns—poured into the state.
Perhaps colored by that history, some Texans won’t accept federal limits on their guns, Blake says. “It’s like trying to imagine Southern California without cars,” he says. “It’s so much a part of our way of life.”
Don’t let the state’s vast stash of guns and the powerful gun lobby fool you, counters Frances Schenkkan, an Austin-based gun-control advocate and board member of States United to Prevent Gun Violence.
Sure, the gun-toting frontier land is rich history and great for storytelling, but reality in the Lone Star State reflects a different world. A younger and more diverse population has for decades been swelling in urban areas—Dallas, Houston and San Antonio—where guns are less popular, Schenkkan says.
Even in Texas, a state that brands itself as “a whole other country,” the dynamics of the state gun debate are shifting. In the past two legislative sessions, a proposal to allow guns on college campuses has failed to pass, despite a strong push by pro-gun legislators, Schenkkan says.
“It tells me there’s some reluctance and some understanding of the issue,” she said. “What people would call the romance of the West and Texas—that’s fading.”
Despite the changing demographics and the fact that most Texans have scant ties to the state’s pioneer roots, sheer numbers reflect a place with an enduring affinity for guns.
Texas has more gun dealers—about 8,500—than any other state, according to statistics kept by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. Thousands of guns bought legally in Texas each year make it across the state’s southern border and into the hands of Mexican drug cartels, according to ATF reports.
The state’s lax gun laws—no state registration of firearms required, no waiting period, no limits on type or number of guns—make Texas a prolific source of guns for criminals and the ire of national gun-control advocates, says John Rosenthal, co-founder of the Newton, Mass.-based Stop Handgun Violence. “Texas is definitely part of the problem,” he says.
Gun rights advocates say the relatively low death-by-gun numbers reflect something else: a responsible gun culture. Most Texas gun owners are familiar with firearms, have hunted with them for much of their lives and use them responsibly, said Steve Hall, executive director of the 37,000-member Texas State Rifle Association. The vast majority of the group’s 37,000 members are casual collectors with multiple firearms, he points out.
As Washington debates gun-control measures, local gun stores are doing brisk business as more Texans buy more guns, something not seen in a while, Hall says. “People think (the Obama) administration and Congress will further restrict their rights.”
In Beaumont, Pastor McAbee, who has been giving concealed weapons classes for more than a year, says he’s reaching out to area teachers so they’ll be ready if the local districts allow firearms on campus.
After Sandy Hook, he posted a note on Facebook offering the free classes. On a recent Saturday, he trained 150 teachers; an additional 200 have signed up for his next class in March.
The firearm training doesn’t conflict with the church doctrine he lives by, he says.
“I preach peace,” McAbee says. “Having a firearm keeps the peace.”