The Texas House of Representatives’ passage last Friday of HB 1927, a bill that would effectively allow for the unlicensed carry of handguns in most public places in Texas, was quickly followed by Lt. Governor Dan Patrick’s comments to the press this week that, as of now, there isn’t enough support in the Texas Senate to act on the bill. In the wake of some police organizations’ high-profile opposition to allowing unlicensed and untrained gun owners to carry weapons in public places (which didn’t persuade the House majority), Patrick’s public decision to push the pause button in part reflects a tension between two prominent themes of recent Republican election campaigns: the promise to “back the blue,” a ubiquitous refrain of campaigns up and down the ballot in 2020, and the full-throated defense of an ever-expansive view of the Second Amendment in light of real or imagined threats from the likes of Joe Biden, Nancy Pelosi, Beto O’Rourke and other like-minded Democrats.
But a close look at these attitudes and the political context of the task currently before Lt. Gov Patrick suggests that the situation also presents him with an opportunity to capitalize on the emergent tension between backing the blue and the Second Amendment, while still keeping his powder dry for what could be a complicated election year for him.
Republicans have expressed continuously favorable opinions toward the police and police officers over the last decade of UT/TT polling, with little deviation resulting from the previous summer’s protests, or from the continued video evidence of the dangers that black people, and in particular black males, face during encounters with the police. Among Texas Republican voters, 85% held a favorable view of the police, including 58% who held a “very favorable” view in February 2021 University of Texas/Texas Tribune Polling. Asked to evaluate whether or not the shootings of unarmed Black people by police officers are better described as isolated incidents or as signs of broader problems, 78% of Republicans say these shootings are isolated incidents.
|Neither favorable nor unfavorable||22%||21%||9%|
|Don't know/No opinion||1%||8%||1%|
|A sign of broader problems...||83%||44%||12%|
|Don't know/No opinion||8%||16%||10%|
At the same time, widespread concerns over perceptions of degrading public safety – another related theme in 2020 Republican campaigns – don’t appear to reflect the personal experience of many Republicans. As a group, they express the highest feelings of safety in the communities where they live of any group in the electorate. Yet their fealty to police also means that Republicans overwhelmingly want to see local police spending increased (63%), with only 5% saying they want to see a decrease in police spending.
|Left as they are now||11%||33%||43%|
|Don't know/No opinion||6%||12%||9%|
When it comes to guns, as we wrote earlier this week, the majority of Republicans don’t appear to be clamoring for looser gun control laws in Texas. A persistent minority consistently supports proposals to expand gun rights (or oppose gun control proposals favored by majorities of all Texans), and is strategically placed within the Republican party — that is, they are concentrated in some of its most conservative corners, posing headaches and even direct threats in GOP primaries. But this group does not constitute a majority of Republicans. We won’t rehash the whole argument again, but to wit: in October 2019, the plurality of Texas Republican voters, 43%, said that gun control laws should be left alone, with equal shares, 24%, saying that gun laws should be made more or less strict, respectively. The majority of Texas Republicans, 68%, support universal background checks as of last February, while 53% said that they supported so-called red flag laws in late 2019.
|Don't know/No opinion||4%||12%||5%|
Thus for all the undertones in the press coverage and social media commentary saying, “Look, Patrick is in trouble!” the Lt. Governor has ample room to maneuver. There’s a lot to speculate on here, and we’ll find out more as this unfolds in the coming weeks (and as we generate more polling data throughout the session). But as the rash of mostly unsuccessful amendments proposed during floor debate in the House illustrated, there are plenty of ways to amend the bill in ways to assuage law enforcement groups’ concerns, e.g. providing more latitude to police in encounters with legally armed Texans, more narrowly restricting who it covers, where guns may be carried, and what is or isn’t legal while carrying a handgun in a public place.
While Patrick and his Senate might take some heat from fervent, single-issue voting gun owners (along with friendly fire from other ambitious politicians), the passage of a modified HB 1927 that can be called “constitutional carry” is likely to be good enough for most Republicans (especially the minority actually asking for it), while mollifying police groups enough to keep them in the fold come November 2022. So if Patrick is able to pull off a mildly modified bill, as we wrote in the other post, he might actually benefit from looking like the hero to the broader Republican constituency not asking for looser gun laws while displaying to players in the Capitol his continuing ability to control the Senate. This would no doubt leave a small but loud share of disgruntled right-wing activists, as in previous sessions. Patrick faced such a situation after the 2019 session, and was publicly dismissive (or worse) of the carping of the spokespeople for right-wing groups. Patrick’s job approval numbers among Republicans took a minor but inconsequential dip afterward, and everyone moved on.
Pulling off such a maneuver would play into the ever-present jockeying for position between Patrick, Governor Greg Abbott and Speaker of the House Dade Phelan to Patrick’s benefit. Phelan presided over the passage of the HB 1927 by House; Abbott was pointedly non-committal about the bill earlier this week, sheltering under the umbrella of his vague but powerful-sounding invocation of making Texas a “Second Amendment Sanctuary State” in his state of the state speech and reiterating his expectation that the legislature needed to pass all his emergency items or else be called back into a special session. Abbott’s evasion is obvious but strategic; it reflects both an awareness of the pressure on Patrick as well as the timing of the session. For now Abbott is left to sit on the sidelines waiting to either take credit for the legislature’s work or to blame them for perceived failures. In the meantime, it is left to Patrick to engineer the compromises among legislators and stakeholders, especially law enforcement groups, necessary to pass an amended bill. If he fails to do so, he suffers the blame from gun activists (and Abbott, even if he has doubts about the bill). If he succeeds, even a compromise bill will burnish his image as the primary gatekeeper in the legislature, and as responsible for reinvigorating the office of Lt. Governor. He has assiduously cultivated this image as long as he has presided over the Senate, and there’s no reason to think he won’t do so again, even if he does have qualms about the wisdom of the final outcome. There will do doubt be more opportunities to back the blue soon enough.