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Lawmakers say they backed the measure to prevent residents from choosing between violating gun laws or falling victim to looting, but some officials question whether it's necessary.
Texas residents will likely be able to carry all firearms with them if forced to evacuate due to a hurricane or other natural disaster this year.
That’s because Texas lawmakers passed legislation this week that would allow residents to carry handguns without a permit for up to one week after a disaster declaration. The legislation now heads to Gov. Greg Abbott’s desk for his signature and would take effect Sept. 1, about midway through the year’s Atlantic hurricane season, which begins Saturday.
Texas law allows gun owners to openly carry long guns like rifles and shotguns without a permit and handguns can be transported in vehicles operated by the gun owner. To carry handguns in public, however, Texans must obtain a license to carry, which requires classroom training and a shooting test.
Supporters of the legislation said that when Hurricane Harvey brought torrential rain and flooding to parts of Texas in 2017, handgun owners without carry permits faced a quandary: evacuate with the firearm and risk possible criminal charges or leave it unattended at home.
“People did not want to break the law, but if they left their gun at home it would be vulnerable to looters,” said Lauren Lumsden, legislative director for Texas Rep. Dade Phelan, a sponsor of the legislation.
Approximately 780,000 Texans evacuated their homes amid the devastation from Hurricane Harvey and more than 42,000 Texans took refuge in shelters, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
While it’s unclear whether evacuees’ homes were specifically targeted for gun-related looting, firearms stores certainly were. Burglars stole 109 guns from firearms stores in the Houston area over two days while Hurricane Harvey bore down on the region, according to KCPR-TV.
The handgun legislation was not without controversy. Some Texas lawmakers and law enforcement officials were critical of the bill, concerned the implications could complicate already chaotic situations.
“I think it’s really, really poor public policy that is not thought out,” Texas Sen. Joan Huffman, a Republican, told the Austin Statesman. “I think you are creating a situation which will be very difficult for law enforcement because, instead of having to deal with rescuing people or helping people, they have to deal with situations about how to confront someone with a gun.”
Former Houston Mayor Annise Parker, who helped oversee one of the major evacuation shelter sites in the city during Hurricane Harvey, said the legislation was unnecessary.
“If you are leaving in your own car, you already have the ability to bring it with you,” Parker said. “Put it in the trunk and there you go.”
That was the case for many of the residents who evacuated and took shelter at NRG Stadium, Parker said. The dozens of evacuees who did bring firearms or knives with them to the shelter were required to check the weapons in lockers before entry.
“We checked guns into lockers, no questions asked,” she said.
Law enforcement representatives were not wholly supportive of the legislation either.
Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo said the legislation “isn’t needed” and cautioned that it could embolden gang members, according to the Houston Chronicle.
The Houston Police Officers’ Union did not take a position on the legislation, but past president Ray Hunt said the organization would prefer that unpermitted gun owners be required to unload their guns before transport—something that the legislation does not require.
“We don’t want people to use that excuse to carry their gun on their hip and patrol,” Hunt said.
The governor's office did not respond to a request for comment regarding his intention to sign the legislation.
Neither Lumsden nor the National Rifle Association, which lobbied lawmakers on the bill, cited any instance in which a gun owner was criminally charged for illegally carrying a handgun without a permit during Hurricane Harvey evacuations.
Legislation similar to the Texas bill was adopted in Florida in 2015. The Florida legislation only extends the right to carry a firearm without a permit to those “in the act of evacuating” during a 48-hour period following a mandatory evacuation order by the governor.
The Texas legislation originally contained the same 48-hour provision as the Florida law, but the Austin Statesman reported that it was changed to extend the permit exemption for a week.
Andrea Noble is a Staff Correspondent for Route Fifty.