WACO, TEXAS — THE armed standoff between federal agents and the residents of a religious commune east of Waco has rekindled soul-searching in Texas over whether citizen-owned guns cause or cure violent crime.
"Every time something like this happens, people call for more and more gun control," laments Tommy Pechacek, whose backyard gun shop lies a few miles down a rural lane from Mount Carmel, the 77-acre compound of the Branch Davidians sect.
Gov. Ann Richards, a hunter and gun owner who was graduated from high school and college in Waco, expressed shock at the admission that the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF) was outgunned in the Feb. 28 skirmish that left four agents and a estimated 10 sect-members dead.
The religious sect Branch Davidians have rapid-fire weapons including a .50-caliber machine gun accurate at a distance of over two miles. All could have been acquired legally.
"When we have people who ... are armed better than the protectors of society, then it's time for us to take a very serious look," Governor Richards said last week.
Earlier this year a Texas state representative proposed banning assault weapons, an action that 3 out of 4 Texans favored in a recent poll. But the gun lobby swamped the legislator's office with telephone calls and letters, forcing him to abandon the effort.
Texas has 170,000 residents who belong to the National Rifle Association, more than any state except California.
Still, the Waco situation could turn the tide against assault weapons in Texas. The legislator is now thinking of reintroducing his bill. A similar bill is before the state Senate.
"We're going to take a good, close look at what we consider military-type assault weapons," predicts Lt. Gov. Bob Bullock, who presides over the Senate. "I've been leaning that way more and more every year."
Mr. Pechacek says he believes that law-abiding citizens ought to be allowed to own assault rifles. "Out in this area, it's just country people" who like to hunt and target shoot, he says.
Or so he once believed. His neighbors at Mount Carmel, of whom Pechacek hadn't heard a word spoken "in years, really in years," turned out to have a "way out of the ordinary" armament - and the will to slay lawmen.
Now Pechacek feels unsafe enough that he wears a Glock semiautomatic pistol on his belt while at home.
"Until this is resolved, I'm just going to be a little cautious," Pechacek explains, thinking of his family and his part-time business, Hilltop Shooters Supply. "I'm not a survivalist or a fanatic with guns. I go to church every Sunday. But on the other hand, I try to be a realist. You can't stick your head in the sand."
The Glock he carries is slightly larger than the model that Texan George Hennard used in October 1991 to kill more than 20 restaurant patrons and himself in an adjacent county.
Ironically, that massacre prompted pro-gun Texas legislators to propose legalizing concealed weapons, which could lead to a proliferation of handguns in public.
"We have to have this bill," says David Edmondson, executive director of the Texas State Rifle Association in Dallas. Citing a similar law passed by Florida in 1988, he says criminals would think twice before attacking citizens who might be armed.
From 1986 to 1991, violent crime, on a per-capita basis, rose 14 percent in Florida, according to federal Bureau of Justice Statistics. The growth rate in Texas was twice that, but the state still ended the period with a level of violent crime 29 percent lower than in Florida.
A sheriff's deputy who had responded to Hennard's killing spree is among the lawmen assisting ATF outside Waco. As he waves away the curious at a roadblock near Pechacek's house, the deputy scoffs at the arguments for legalizing concealed weapons.
"Do you really need a gun?" he asks. "I've been in law enforcement for 30 years, and I've never shot anybody. I've only had to point it at people a few times."
Lawmen oppose concealed weapons because they believe more people will kill each other in arguments because the average person doesn't know what constitutes justifiable homicide, and because in a gunfight between a citizen and a criminal police wouldn't know which was which.
And Richards has vowed to veto the concealed weapons bill if it reaches her desk.