As of the the stroke of midnight Jan. 1, the Texas landscape will have harkened to the days of the Wild West as the state’s new “open carry” law takes effect. Just as it was 140 years ago — the last time in the Lone Star State when people walked around freely with their holstered guns in plain view — the new law allows for the open display of firearms among licensed gun owners.

Texas becomes the most populous state in the nation to allow for the carrying of guns in the open, to the delight of pro-gun advocates but to to the consternation of those calling for increased firearms safety.

The one dynamic both camps share in common is that the new law has galvanized their ranks.

Beginning Jan. 1, the so-called open carry law:

  • Authorizes residents to obtain a license to openly carry a handgun in the same places that allow the licensed carrying of concealed handguns.
  • Requires openly displayed firearms, either loaded or unloaded, to be carried in a belt or shoulder holster.
  • Allows those with a concealed handgun license to openly carry firearms with their existing license.
  • Enables currently licensed gun owners to openly carry without additional training.

While open carry is now the law of the land, safety proponents vow to continue pressuring businesses to ban open firearm displays on their premises. On that front, at least, the fight has just begun.

‘More Deaths’

Andrea Brauer, executive director of Austin-based Texas Gun Sense, which promotes safe gun ownership, isn’t fearful of the number of guns on the streets of Texas, but she is nervous about the increased likelihood of accidental gun deaths.

Texas already records some 11 gun-related deaths per 100,000 population.

“Accidents happen, and open carry makes it more likely that accidents will happen,” she said. “That’s what pains me, that some child will die unnecessarily because of this need to have an open carry law.

“I’m not trying to be an alarmist,” she added, “but I believe there will be more deaths.”

Even with the advent of open carry in Texas, Alexandra Chasse, Houston-based spokeswoman for Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, takes solace in the organization’s swelling ranks as the new law takes effect.

“We’re catching up really quickly in terms of the number of our supporters with the NRA,” Chasse, herself a gun owner, said of her group’s 3 million supporters. “We’ve had really rapid growth we can attribute not only to social media but the sheer enthusiasm of all of our volunteers.”

At the other end of the debate is Michael Cargill, owner and training instructor at Central Texas Gun Works in in South Austin.

“I think guns should be allowed everywhere,” he said. “I do not waver on that; I do not falter.”

“This law is for licensed holders–the most law-abiding people in the state of Texas,” Cargill asserts. “These are people who’ve gone through background checks.”

He then adds a personal note: “It’s something exciting for people to open carry.”

Philosophical Divide

Such is the polarized nature of the debate over gun access in Texas. Nowhere is the chasm more evident than in the palpably passionate rhetoric employed on either side: Pleas for safe gun handling on one side and strident expressions of Second Amendment rights on the other.

To understand the passions on each side of the debate, one must understand the gun culture in Texas, dramatically illustrated by statistics on per-capita ownership of firearms–data selectively extrapolated by those on either side of the spectrum in buttressing their stance on the issue.

Texas is not the leading state in terms of gun ownership (that honor belongs to Wyoming, where there is one firearm registered per every five residents). Instead, Texas is ranked 18th, but still posts astounding stats: 12.8 registered firearms per 1,000 residents.

But in terms of sheer population, the Lone Star State (population roughly 27 million) is the most populous in the nation now allowing for open carry.

Gun rights fans like to note that Texas now becomes the 45th state in the nation to allow open carry — to varying degrees — positing the development as a prevailing trend in attitudes toward guns.

That abundance of guns, now with the backdrop of open carry, is what worries safety advocates the most.

Passive Law Enforcement

In Pflugerville, law enforcement officials produced a video explaining the new law in lieu of staging public forums, disseminating it to residents via its municipal website. Pflugerville police join those in the neighboring communities of Round Rock and Georgetown to liken gun owners’ rights to carry firearms to the ability of other residents to operate a vehicle.

“A license holder has a legal right to openly carry a handgun just as much as you have a legal right to drive a car with a driver’s license,” officer Jason Smith of the Pflugerville Police Department says in the video.

Police in Round Rock, another community north of Austin, took a similar approach–albeit with more dramatic production values–disseminating a video depicting a concerned boy spotting a man with a holstered gun entering a convenience store while telling his mom, who protectively pulls him closer to her.

The narrator in the video then admonishes against calling 911 in similar, real-life scenarios.

“Before you call 911, ask yourself: Is the gun out of its holster? Is the person acting reckless, threatening or a danger to the public?”

The video production was not well-received by Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, and it didn’t exactly have the desired effect.

“Wow,” they responded on their Facebook page. “This video demonstrates the horrible position Texas police and citizens will be in on Jan. 1 when the state’s new open carry law for handguns goes into effect. No Texan should have to determine if armed strangers are reckless, threatening or a danger to the public.”

But it might be largely up to the public to decide who’s dangerous and who’s not.

In Austin and its surrounding communities of Round Rock and Georgetown, law enforcement officials have publicly stated they won’t go around asking every person seen walking around with a holstered gun for proof of license and registration–unless there is reasonable suspicion their guns might be used in the commission of a crime.

Police paint this stance as an effort to strike a balance between respecting gun owners’ rights to now visibly carry their prized weapons while still safeguarding residents’ safety.

“Part of our responsibility is balancing one citizen’s right to be concerned versus another citizen’s right to exercise their right to carry under the law,” said Georgetown Assistant Police Chief Cory Tchida in a recent public meeting in Round Rock staged to outline the vagaries of the new law that was attended by more than 100 residents.

The Austin Police Department has taken the same stance, asking the public to call only if a crime is being committed rather than to report a person walking around with a holstered piece.

Brauer–and her like-minded supporters–aren’t so sure that’s the real reason.

“I think they’re in a very, very tough position,” she said. “State agencies are under-resourced.”

Whatever the reason for the passive stance, it, too, raises concerns given the abstraction of actual scenarios involving gun holders and the subjective criteria that would prompt interaction with law enforcement.

“I think it’s going to be situational, and law enforcement will be given leeway,” Brauer said. “But what is suspicious activity?”

Fueling the Divide

In the weeks leading up to the open carry law, Gov. Greg Abbott encouraged Texans to carry more guns, not fewer.

“I’m embarrassed,” he wrote on Twitter Oct. 28, spelling the second word in all caps. “Texas #2 in nation for new gun purchases, behind California [again, all caps]. Let’s pick up the pace, Texans.”

Abbott’s critics point to his ardent support of open carry as emblematic of a tone-deafness in the face of legitimate concerns. The sight of openly carried weapons is, after all, virtually unprecedented–last seen, literally, in the days of the Wild West. The state’s open carry law effectively reverses a 140-year ban on the visible display of firearms.

“Sometimes, the rhetoric is rather mind-boggling,” Chasse said. “This is no joke. I’m a gun owner myself, and this type of rhetoric and culture is not reflective of civil and responsible gun ownership.”

To illustrate the legitimacy of her concern, she pointed to a case just before Christmas in Colorado Springs, where a resident called 911 to report a man walking around with a rifle. The dispatcher downplayed the caller’s concerns, noting the state was open carry, only to have the man kill three people.

“These are the unintended consequences,” Chasse said.

After an effort to require additional training for existing gun owners failed in the Legislature (the bill was defeated, registered gun owners grandfathered instead) Brauer met with and emailed Texas Department of Public Safety officials repeatedly to encourage them to at least put a list of safety tips to follow in an a new era of open carry.

To date, the tips haven’t been posted.

Novelty or Lifestyle?

But both camps agree the novelty of open carry will wear off and gun sightings won’t be as commonplace after the initial excitement over the new law. Cargill says most gun owners don’t even want people knowing they have guns.

“Some people will be excited, and to others it won’t be a big deal,” he said. “I think it’ll die off after a while.”

Those wanting limits to open gun displays are buoyed by the growing list of businesses that have stated unequivocally they won’t allow gun-toting patrons inside for fear of making other customers uncomfortable. On Thursday, the burger chain Torchy’s became the latest to ban firearms on their premises, preceded by grocer HEB which disclosed its ban on Christmas Eve.

Chasse applauded the rash of bans ahead of the new law.

“I shouldn’t have to question whether that person has good intentions, is licensed, has good intentions or just had an argument with someone,” she said. “We shouldn’t have to tolerate that kind of uncertainty and anxiety in the places we shop, go with our families, worship or have a nice meal with our families.”

In spite of the new law, both Brauer and Chasse plan to continue to contact more businesses urging further bans. Chasse said she’s scheduled to speak before the Legislature to urge lawmakers ease up on onerous and cost-prohibitive signage laws that disallow smaller businesses from instituting their own bans.

For her part, Brauer plans to attend an upcoming state sein urging for more safety safeguards.

Both camps are now poised for another looming battle–the companion “open campus” provision requiring public universities to allow guns on campus. Even while having to adhere to the new rules, some universities are averse to allowing guns in dorms. A new set of guidelines are expected to be in effect by August.

New Battles Loom

On Tuesday, Virginia Attorney Gen. Mark R. Herring announced the commonwealth will no longer recognize out-of-state concealed handgun permits, part of a national push to circumvent legislatures opposed to tightening gun laws.

And on Thursday, news broke that President Obama was expected to announce executive action in the coming days calling for expanded background checks on gun purchases.

Back in Texas, holstered proponents of the new open carry law are scheduled to descend on Capitol grounds this Saturday to celebrate their new freedom. Cargill points to the diversity of those to gather–members of the African American Gun Club, Open Carry Texas, Lone Star Gun Rights, and others–as evidence of open carry’s broad appeal.

Those on the other side of the debate will also be there, not in elation but to protest the new law.

And in true Texas fashion, the showdown at the Capitol is scheduled at high noon.