How much will the GOP gamble on guns?

Photo by Todd Wiseman

The most recent University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll found a clear lack of majority support for open carry proposals in the state, especially the unlicensed open carry option so loudly and aggressively advocated by proponents in the early weeks of the legislative session. The poll results also suggest that a political play on guns carries a broader risk for Republicans beyond the electoral (and other) threats made by gun rights advocates should legislators ignore their demands.

Though it’s become an article of faith that Republicans had better shoot straight on open carry, the proposals divide Republicans much more than the recent clamor to give the people what they want might suggest.

In the February 2015 UT/TT poll, we asked Texas voters three questions about guns. First, we asked whether they believe that gun control laws in Texas should be made stricter, less strict or left as they are now. Overall, only 22 percent of Texans chose the less strict option, compared with 36 percent who said stricter and 36 percent who would leave the laws unchanged.

You might think these results are driven by partisanship, but that’s not entirely the case. While support for making gun control laws stricter is high among Democrats (at 62 percent), a majority of Republicans (52 percent) would prefer to leave the laws alone. In fact, Tea Party Republicans are the only group for whom a majority (54 percent) would like the laws made less strict — and they make up about 18 percent of registered voters. So while partisanship is salient here, support among Republican voters is much less of a given than support among Republicans in the Legislature might suggest.

More central to the open carry debate, we also asked Texans their attitudes about the carrying and licensing requirements for handguns in public places. The question is somewhat complicated, so it’s best to reproduce it here verbatim:

As you may know, Texas law currently allows legally licensed individuals to carry concealed handguns in public places. Which of the following do you most agree with?

  1. Texans should never be allowed to carry a handgun in a public place.
  2. Texans should be allowed to carry a concealed handgun in a public place, as long as they have a license.
  3. Texans should also be allowed to openly carry a handgun in a public place, as long as they have a license to do so.
  4. Texans should always be allowed to carry a handgun in a public place, and should not be required to have a license to do so.

Overall, 45 percent of Texans (a plurality) chose the status quo option of licensed concealed carry. Another 23 percent said handguns shouldn’t be carried in public places period, while 22 percent endorsed licensed open carry and only 10 percent endorsed unlicensed open carry (which supporters call “constitutional carry”).

When examined by partisanship, half of Republicans expressed support for the status quo over licensed open carry (29 percent) or unlicensed open carry (14 percent). Again, the driving force for the least restrictive gun control law rested in Tea Party attitudes, where 30 percent endorsed unlicensed open carry — which trailed support for licensed open carry by 7 points among the same group.

Even among the 34 percent of Republicans who say gun control laws in Texas should be made less strict, 27 percent would still retain the status quo, 38 percent would endorse licensed open carry and 35 percent would support unlicensed open carry.

But those surprised by the lackluster support for open carry (especially unlicensed open carry) may have forgotten results from the February 2013 UT/TT Poll that also painted a fairly clear portrait of substantial support among Texans for the status quo on gun laws. Attitudes recorded two years ago appear to have been shaped less by the proximity of the 2012 shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, than we thought at the time. Then, as now, a large share of Texans — including about half of Republicans — said they were satisfied with current gun laws.

These results, however, don’t paint a portrait of Texas as somehow unfriendly to gun possession. Texas remains a state with relatively permissive gun laws, and certainly only limited appetite to make them stricter. Concealed handgun license regulations were loosened last session, and legislation introduced this year would loosen them even more.

This embrace of the current approach to the carrying of handguns in public likely, or at least partially, informs attitudes toward guaranteeing the ability of concealed handgun license holders to take their weapons onto college campuses. There is substantial, but not uncontested, support for bills allowing so-called campus carry, with 47 percent in favor and 45 percent opposed. As closely divided as opinion on campus carry may be among Texans overall, Republicans of all stripes overwhelmingly support the idea (69 percent of Republicans, 57 percent of non-Tea Party Republicans and 86 percent of Tea Party Republicans).

These numbers make campus carry a safer bet for Republicans than open carry, which lacks majority support in any configuration among any group other than Tea Party Republicans, who made up about a third of Republican identifiers in our most recent poll. There is an aura of inevitability this year around open carry legislation, likely created by Republican fear of primary challenges from the right and campaign promises made last fall. In practical terms, conservative dominance of low-turnout GOP primaries makes quietly going along with open carry a safe bet for most Republicans. But should the expansion of gun rights be followed by a public tragedy linked to expanded carry, many Republicans may find plenty of evidence suggesting that making what they thought was the safe bet was in fact a bad gamble.

James Henson

Texas Tribune pollster and director of the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas at Austin


Joshua Blank

Research director, Texas Politics Project, University of Texas at Austin