AUSTIN, TEXAS — TEXANS haven't been permitted to carry concealed handguns since shortly after the Civil War. But on Jan. 1, that prohibition was lifted and Texans have been trading shots ever since in a debate over firearms that is anything but civil.
The controversy was refueled last week when a Dallas grand jury refused to indict a licensed gun owner who shot another man after a minor traffic accident.
The grand jury found that Gordon Reid Hale III acted in self defense when he fatally shot Kenny Tavai on Feb. 21. The shooting occurred after Mr. Tavai's side mirror clipped Mr. Hale's pickup truck on a Dallas expressway. An argument ensued and Tavai began punching Hale in the head. Hale then reached for his .40-caliber pistol and shot Tavai, who died a short time later.
Advocates on both sides of the gun issue are using the jury's decision as fodder for the debate. But the case also raises questions about a peculiar Texas law that allows a person to use deadly force in self defense, if he or she hasn't provoked the threat.
Both debates carry resonance beyond the Lone Star State as concealed weapons laws spread across the country and states grapple with delicate issues of public safety and individual rights.
Beneath the brouhaha: Do concealed-weapons laws cut down on or contribute to violence?
"I don't think having that kind of killing happen in our state makes anyone feel safer," says Nina Butts, director of Texans Against Gun Violence. "The majority of Texans don't like to have lots of people running around with guns in their pockets."
Ms. Butts points to a recent opinion poll showing 50 percent of Texans oppose the concealed-weapon law while 44 percent of respondents favored it. "The concealed-weapon law isn't about safety; it's about selling guns," she says.
But Mark Seale, a spokesman for state Sen. Jerry Patterson (R) of Houston, who wrote the state's concealed gun bill, says the grand jury's decision in the Hale case "didn't concern him having a handgun license. The facts were about the use of deadly force."
Mr. Seale says the Hale decision was "a landmark case only because he didn't get charged with carrying an illegal weapon." If the shooting had occurred two years ago, Seale said Hale would have been prosecuted for carrying a handgun illegally.
The ban on concealed handguns has been in place since 1871 when legislators decided the mixture of former Confederate soldiers and newly freed slaves was too volatile to allow citizens to carry handguns. Since that time, the Texas Legislature has reconsidered the ban and in 1993, it lifted the prohibition but the bill was vetoed by then-Gov. Ann Richards, a Democrat.
Last year, when the Legislature again passed a bill lifting the prohibition, Republican Gov. George W. Bush quickly signed the measure into law and the state has been deluged with requests for gun license applications. Nearly a quarter million citizens have requested application forms and some 39,000 Texans are now legally packing heat.
But dozens of Texas companies and municipalities are deciding to take gun control into their own hands. Twenty of the state's largest companies have either created or reaffirmed rules that prohibit employees and visitors from carrying guns. Dallas, El Paso, Austin, and half a dozen other cities have passed ordinances prohibiting concealed handguns in city buildings.
Glenn Reynolds, a Second Amendment scholar at the University of Tennessee Law School, says the rhetoric over guns obscures the issue of whether right-to-carry laws are reducing crime. "Opponents in every state that has adopted these laws have predicted there'd be a bloodbath and that hasn't happened anywhere," says Mr. Reynolds, who adds that the laws appear to cause a minor reduction in burglaries and murder rates. "These laws don't make much difference. They don't dramatically reduce the crime rate nor do they induce a bloodbath."