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LOCKHART — Michael Cargill’s commands cut through the air sharply as his license-to-carry students train to shoot at Lone Star Gun Range in Lockhart.
“One shot. One shot.”
The students load one bullet into their handguns, some brought from home, others rented from Cargill’s gun shop, Central Texas Gun Works. He reminds them to make sure their right thumb is atop their left on the gun, to keep their stances wide and to lean forward.
“Fire! Fire! Fire!”
If their stances are uneven, if their thumbs are not aligned, Cargill pauses to adjust each student’s positioning. This is the purpose of Cargill’s license-to-carry class: to ensure that the gun owners leave more informed than they came.
Texas is coming up on two years since permitless carry passed in the Texas Legislature, which has allowed Texans to carry handguns without a license since September 2021. Although they don’t need a permit to carry a handgun, over 200,000 people in Texas still obtained licenses in 2022.
According to Texas instructors like Cargill who teach license-to-carry classes, the reasons for their students’ presence is clear. There are still benefits to taking the class and receiving a permit: knowledge about the law, ability to carry a gun across state lines and peace of mind.
Texas Republicans and gun owners have argued that eliminating regulations on firearms is compelled by a conservative reading of the U.S. Constitution — and necessary to protect the rights of Texas citizens. When Gov. Greg Abbott signed legislation doing away with permits, known by conservatives as “constitutional carry,” he characterized the law as “defending the Second Amendment.”
Before permitless carry was signed into law, Texans generally needed to be licensed to carry handguns openly or concealed. Applicants had to submit fingerprints, complete four to six hours of in-person training and pass a written exam and a shooting proficiency test. As far as rifles go, Texas does not require a license to openly carry one in public.
When House Bill 1927 was moving through the Legislature in 2021, gun safety activists and law enforcement officers raised concerns about the loosening of restrictions for handgun ownership. Eric Reuben, an associate professor at Southern Methodist University Law School and a Second Amendment expert, said those concerns haven’t gone away for many.
He emphasized that with permitless carry came the ability to have a gun without undergoing any training.
“What permitless carry means to me is that somebody can just go and buy a gun and start carrying around without ever having pulled the trigger, let alone learn about any of the laws,” Reuben said. “You’re not just removing the requirement of a license. You’re also removing the requirement for minimal training.”
According to the Texas Department of Public Safety, there was a huge spike in licenses issued during the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Licenses issued increased nearly 56% from 2019 to 2020. That number dipped a bit in 2021 and dropped even further in 2022, the first full calendar year after permitless carry went into effect.
It’s unclear whether these numbers could include renewals of licenses. Texas DPS did not respond to requests asking for more specifics on these statistics.
The demographics of those receiving licenses have remained relatively the same, except for Black Texans. The number of Black Texans issued gun licenses rose steeply throughout the last seven years, going from 24,758 in 2016 to 28,359 in 2018 and then surging to 58,858 in 2020. The number dipped slightly in 2021 and is around the same as it was six years ago.
Phil Ryan, who teaches license-to-carry courses at Texas Concealed Carry Institute in McKinney, said the No. 1 reason people attend his classes is to learn the laws, adding that it’s “because they know in one second, they could become a criminal.”
Although the classroom section of the licensing class can be taken online, Ryan said 95% of his students want to take the class in person so that they can ask questions.
Although permitless carry is legal, it is still possible to be arrested for unlawful carry for many reasons: for example, if you are intoxicated, if you are a felon, if you are in a government building without a license or if you are in a restricted place like a public school.
Cargill, the gun instructor and gun shop owner in Austin, said if gun owners ever have to interact with the police, it’s helpful to have a license.
“If you go into the airport and you make a mistake and you accidentally have your gun in your carry-on luggage, with the license, you get an ‘oopsie, my bad,’” Cargill said. “They’ll walk you to your vehicle and let you come back in again. Not so much without a permit.”
Cargill said that business for his classes dropped off a bit last year after permitless carry passed, but attendance has been steadily increasing, something he attributes to a rise in unlawful carry arrests.
Reuben said peace of mind is likely another reason why so many are seeking licenses. But it is too early to measure the effect permitless carry has had on society and to understand how it will affect Texas in years to come.
“Permitless carry is still so fresh, and there’s still some uncertainty about how it will all work with reciprocity agreements and just generally where they can carry,” Reuben said. “People might want to wait until there’s greater awareness of exactly where the lines are drawn.”
In Cargill’s license-to-carry class, almost every one of the 19 students asked questions in hypotheticals. Many took the course to garner a clear grasp on the laws.
One student, Joe Molina, a native Texan, asked, “What is the best way to avoid a Philando Castile situation?”
Philando Castile was fatally shot by a police officer during a traffic stop in Falcon Heights, Minnesota, on July 6, 2016. Although Castile notified the officer that he had a licensed firearm in the car and said he was not reaching for the firearm, the officer fired at him several times, killing him.
Although Molina is already a gun owner, he said obtaining a license is about being sure of the laws and maintaining his safety in high-stress situations.
Recent University of Texas at Austin graduates Grace Edgar, 22, and Payten Kooyers, 23, said they believe the class will make them more responsible gun owners and that even if it’s not necessary, “why wouldn’t we take it?”
“There’s a lot of people who don’t like guns, so it’s important for me to prove that I’m serious about this and trained,” Edgar said. “I’m not just doing this for fun.”
Texas has already solidified reciprocity agreements with other states, meaning there are 37 states that accept a Texas gun license. This is another reason why students are taking license-to-carry classes, said Johnny Price from Big Iron Handgun Licensing in Waco.
Price also said the perception of a violent culture has led to more people wanting licenses for protection. Gun violence in Texas has been on the rise for decades.
There were 15 deaths by firearms per 100,000 people in Texas in 2021, a 50% increase from 1999, when there were on average 10 deaths by firearms per 100,000 people. Over the same period, firearm-related homicides rose 66% and suicides involving firearms rose 40%.
Price noted that carrying a gun is about responsibility, and he tells his students that the last thing they want to do is use a gun.
“We’ve got people coming in here who think, ‘We can carry wherever we want.’ That’s not at all what this is,” Price said.
Cargill said this is why his class focused heavily on deescalation and why he emphasizes that firing a gun should be the absolute last option.
“Let it go” is a refrain he repeats throughout the class, particularly when discussing road rage. He showed his students a graphic video of a dispute over a mattress escalating into a shootout in which one man was killed.
“Guns are great tools, but I’m trying to drill into people’s heads that firing a gun is a permanent choice,” Cargill said. “Once that bullet comes out, it’s out.”
Still, Cargill is against broad gun restrictions and believes everyone should have the right to own a gun.
He filed a suit this year against U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland, the U.S. Department of Justice and the director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives over a Trump-era ban on bump stocks, a device used on firearms to allow for rapid fire. The case is pending before the U.S. Supreme Court.
Although some Texans are still getting permits, activists like Nicole Golden, executive director of Texas Gun Sense, worry about the people who are getting guns without any training.
She and other gun safety advocates are frustrated that lawmakers are stripping away Texas’ few gun laws. She said they expected that many people would still get licenses because of Texas’ “history of responsible gun ownership,” but that it’s not those gun owners whom they are concerned about.
“There are, I don’t know, some hundreds of thousands of people out there that might be carrying unlicensed, and we don’t know who they are,” Golden said. “We don’t know what their history is and we don’t know if they’ve learned any shooting proficiency.”
In 2021, law enforcement officers voiced concerns over permitless carry, fearing that looser restrictions could increase crime rates while putting officers and residents in danger. Before approving the bill, the Senate tacked on several amendments to address their concerns.
“I don’t know what it’s a solution to,” said James McLaughlin, executive director of the Texas Police Chiefs Association, in 2021. “I don’t know what the problem was to start with.”
The compromise lawmakers reached behind closed doors kept intact a number of changes the Senate made to the House bill, including striking a provision that would have barred officers from questioning people based only on their possession of a handgun.
Tyler Owen, communications manager for the Texas Municipal Police Associations, said he has not seen much change in encounters with guns but that police have had to switch gears when responding to 911 calls.
“When somebody calls 911, if they see someone walking around with a gun, the caller may not be aware that this is legal,” Owen said. “We have to take that into consideration.”
Back in Lockhart, Cargill and his students bring their gear back to their targets, tracing their fingers on the bullet holes to count their scores.
Ricardo Berneus celebrated his passing score on the shooting test, saying he wants to safely protect his fiancee and daughter.
Unlike many in the classroom, he did not grow up around guns. He knows he could obtain a gun without taking Cargill’s class but said it’s good to understand the laws described in the classroom and to prepare himself as much as possible.
He even took Cargill’s beginner handgun training class to prepare for the license-to-carry class, which he credited for his shooting score. He wanted to take advantage of every training at his disposal.
“Everything for me is about the intentionality of my personal safety and of my family’s safety,” Berneus said.
Disclosure: Southern Methodist University and University of Texas at Austin have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.
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