By JIM VERTUNO
AUSTIN, Texas (AP) -- The Texas Senate gave preliminary approval Monday to a measure that would make the Lone Star State the largest in the country to allow licensed open carry of handguns.
Gun rights advocates call the measure an important self-defense and Second Amendment issue that would put Texas in line with most of the rest of the country. But opponents say openly carrying guns intimidates the general public.
The 20-11 party-line vote was muscled through by Republicans. It was the first major gun rights vote of the session, and several more pushes on the issue are likely. A final vote on open carry to send the bill to the House is expected Tuesday, when the Senate is also expected to vote on allowing concealed handgun license holders to carry their weapons into college buildings and classrooms.
While most states allow some form of open carry, Texas, Florida, New York, California, Illinois and South Carolina still ban it. Among those, Texas easily has the most gun-friendly reputation. From manufacturers to dealers, Texas has the most federal firearms license holders in the country. It has few restrictions on gun ownership, and the state has actively lobbied gun makers to move to the state.
Texas also allows the public display of long guns, such as rifles and shotguns, and open carry advocates have staged high-profile rallies at the Alamo and state Capitol. Concealed handguns are allowed inside the Capitol, where license holders can bypass metal detectors.
But the state has also had a 140-year ban on open carry, a prohibition dating to the post-Civil War era that disarmed former Confederate soldiers and freed slaves alike.
The bill passed by the Senate still requires Texans to get a license to carry a handgun. Texas has nearly 850,000 concealed handgun license holders under a process that requires classroom and gun range training, although lawmakers have lowered those standards in recent years.
License holders would have to carry their weapon either in a shoulder or belt holster with a choice to conceal the weapon or not. Business owners would still have the right to ban weapons from their premises, and open carry would not be allowed on college campuses.
"These people have been vetted and trained," Estes said. "I think it's time we let them decide which way they want to carry."
Sen. John Whitmire, a Democrat, said he voted for a concealed carry bill in 1995, but called open carry an unnecessary step that will introduce the public presence of guns into urban areas such as Houston and Dallas, two of the largest cities in the country. Whitmire noted that law enforcement groups have largely opposed open carry.
"Your bill just says, `Pass a test, strap it on, go across Houston,"' Whitmire.
Open carry opponents, such as Moms Demand Action for Gun Safety in America, say carrying guns on the street is more about intimidation than self-defense and gun rights.
The bill passed Monday is not the so-called "constitutional carry" measure, which would allow open carry without a license. That separate measure drew heated debate and raised concerns when the session began in January when advocates confronted a House lawmaker in his Capitol office.
The next day, the House voted to make it easier to have "panic buttons" installed in their offices to make it easier for staff to summon security.Copyright 2015 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.