Texas Republicans take a hard right turn on guns, but who’s behind the wheel?

For all the Republican invocations of their fealty to Texans’ embrace of unfettered Second Amendment liberty and to the long-frustrated popular will on display during last week’s debate over House Bill 1927, there is no evidence that even a majority of Republicans, or of the closely overlapping group of self-identified conservatives, supported the latest, most serious efforts yet by Republican elected officials to loosen Texas’ already permissive guns laws. Those who do show signs of support, however, suggest why Republican legislators and statewide elected officials like Governor Abbott and Lt. Governor Patrick are likely to set aside their periodic reservations about the largely unrestricted carrying of handguns in public should the bill keep progressing: this is about the relatively small slice of the most conservative voters who dominate Republican primaries, especially in the non-presidential election years in which Texas statewide officials are elected.

With the Texas House of Representatives’ passage of HB 1927, which would enable most Texans over the age of 21 to carry a handgun in public without training or a permit, Texas is in line to become by far the most populous, most urban, and so the most significant state to enact a policy that only a few years ago was seen as a fringe (or at least a longshot) conservative cause, even among the state’s long-hegemonic Republicans. While one might be tempted to embrace the views of social media conservatives that the majority has finally exerted its will over the feckless RINOs and sell-outs in the Texas Republican Party, public opinion data reveals that the opposite is playing out in the legislature on gun policy: the aggressive minority of conservatives is, for the moment, driving the agenda on guns. 

The signs of the focus on GOP primary voters abound in muliple poll results on gun attitudes, which reveal a Republican electorate philosophically disposed toward favoring the status quo, but much more divided on making it any easier than it already is to legally obtain guns and to carry them in public places.

Yes, 67% of Texas Republicans express the belief that the United States would be safer if more people carried guns, compared to 37% of the overall electorate who thought the same thing. Among Texas voters overall, 39% say more gun ownership would make the U.S. less safe, 16% say it would have no impact. Among those who identify themselves as “extremely conservative,” 75% say that more gun ownership would make the U.S. more safe.

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More safe7%29%67%
Less safe72%33%9%
No impact on safety15%24%16%
Don't know/No opinion6%14%8%

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CategoryLean conservativeSomewhat conservativeExtremely conservative
More safe46%72%75%
Less safe27%8%9%
No impact on safety23%13%7%
Don't know/No opinion3%8%8%

But in October 2019 University of Texas/Texas Tribune Polling, only 24% of Republicans said that current gun laws should be made less strict, the same share that said they should be made more strict. Most significantly, the plurality (43%) would have left gun laws unchanged. This plurality joins a majority of Texas voters who consistently oppose further loosening Texas’ already permissive gun laws. The majority of Texans in that poll, 51%, said that they wanted gun control laws made more strict

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More strict81%45%24%
Less strict2%10%24%
Left as they are now11%33%43%
Don't know/No opinion6%12%9%

Within the same poll, the political locus of the minority who favor continuing to loosen gun laws is clearly on the conservative edge of the Republican Party. Within the 13% who wanted those laws loosened, 38% identified themselves as “extremely conservative,” 29% as “somewhat conservative,” and 13% as leaning “conservative.” Overall, 80% of the small share who want gun laws loosened identify as conservative.

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More strict86%53%30%
Less strict3%6%23%
Left as they are now7%28%39%
Don't know/No opinion4%13%8%

So while Republicans may be more likely to believe that guns make people safer, as a group they don’t necessarily favor making it easier for people to acquire and carry them. The energy for changing the status quo regime that regulates state gun laws is coming from a small minority faction on the right wing of the party.

The marginal scale of the share of Republicans who want to keep reducing the regulations for carrying firearms becomes even more clear, and smaller, when looking at attitudes toward specific proposals. Sizable majorities of Texas Republican voters favor measures that also are very popular with the overall electorate. February 2020 polling found 68% of Republicans in favor of universal background checks on all gun purchases — along with 79% of all Texas voters. October 2019 polling conducted shortly after the mass shooting in El Paso found 53% of Texas Republicans in support of red flag laws (68% among all voters) that would allow a court to require someone to temporarily surrender their guns if they are determined to be a danger to themselves or others. 

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Strongly support83%56%41%
Somewhat support8%17%27%
Somewhat oppose3%5%13%
Strongly oppose1%10%13%
Don't know/No opinion4%12%5%

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Strongly support72%44%27%
Somewhat support15%13%26%
Somewhat oppose2%11%15%
Strongly oppose2%14%19%
Don't know/No opinion8%18%13%

Again, the most evident pocket of opposition to both otherwise popular measures came from those who self-identify as “extremely conservative.” Among that group (about 38% of Republicans in that poll), 42% strongly supported background checks, and 17% strongly opposed them; 35% strongly supported red flag laws, but about a quarter (24%) strongly opposed them. Even among intense conservatives, majorities favor additional monitoring of who gains access to guns. Nonetheless, opinions are much more divided within the group than are their liberal counterparts. None of those who identify as “extremely liberal” oppose background checks, and 85% strongly support them, similar to the 83% of Democrats as a group who express similar support.

Most directly related to the current debate, the February 2015 UT/Texas Tribune poll probed attitudes towards what at the time was described as “constitutional carry” during the legislative debate that eventually allowed for the open carry of firearms in Texas (though still with a license). In that item, Texans were asked, in the context of the open carry debate, whether people should...

  • never be allowed to carry a handgun in public, 
  • allowed to carry a concealed handgun in public with a permit, 
  • allowed to openly carry a handgun in public with a permit, or
  • allowed to carry a handgun in a public place without being required to have a permit

On this last choice, the unlicensed carry option, only 10% of Texans thought that people should be allowed to carry a handgun in public without a permit, including only 14% of Republicans, with 50% in favor of what was, at the time, the status quo of licensed, concealed carry in public places. Among extremely conservative identifiers, 36% supported the status quo, 34% supported licensed “open carry,” and only 18% unlicensed carry.

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Texans should never be allowed to carry a handgun in a public place.43%14%7%
Texans should be allowed to carry a concealed handgun in a public place, as long as they have a license.43%34%50%
Texans should also be allowed to openly carry a handgun in a public place, as long as they have a license to do so.11%39%29%
Texans should always be allowed to carry a handgun in a public place, and should not be required to have a license to do so.3%14%14%

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Texans should never be allowed to carry a handgun in a public place.23%
Texans should be allowed to carry a concealed handgun in a public place, as long as they have a license.45%
Texans should also be allowed to openly carry a handgun in a public place, as long as they have a license to do so.22%
Texans should always be allowed to carry a handgun in a public place, and should not be required to have a license to do so.10%

While the time elapsed since these results allows for the potential for a change in attitudes, those who support less strict gun laws while opposing increased gun safety measures supported or least tolerated by Republicans and other non-GOP Texans, currently represent a small slice of the electorate – but only if the relevant denominator is the whole electorate.

Republican legislators’ determination to pass unlicensed carry following Gov. Abbott’s clarion call to make Texas a “Second Amendment sanctuary state” is just one sign of a Texas Republican Party gearing up for a 2022 election in which they expect the principal challenge to their present offices to come in primary season, not in the general election. That electorate is much smaller than the one in November, and made up of voters who are much more ideologically driven, in both their priorities and their positions on issues like guns.

Looking at the last three non-presidential election year primaries for the Republican Party, data from the Secretary of State show that turnout ranged from 8% of the voting age population in 2010, to 7.18% in 2014, and 7.79% in 2018. These shares translate into between 1.3 million and slightly over 1.5 million voters. Allowing for increases in population, statewide candidates in the 2022 Republican primary will have a target, very roughly, of about 825,000 votes to win the GOP nomination without a run off. Based on the official estimate of the total voting age population of the state (21,596,071), this means the share of voters whose preferences will drive the outcomes of the election statewide is, rounding up, about 4% of the electorate. (Or, if you’d rather, about 5% of the 16,955,519 registered voters in 2020). Translated into legislative races in districts gerrymandered to heavily favor Republicans, you’re talking about a few thousand voters in GOP districts dominated by exurban and rural conservatives.

Statewide Republican Primary Turnout in Gubernatorial Election Years
(Source: Texas Secretary of State)
Year Republican Primary Turnout Percent
(% of Registered Voters / % of Voting Age Population)
Republican Primary Voters
2018 10.16% / 7.79% 1,549,573
2014 9.98% / 7.18% 1,358,074
2010 11.4% / 8.0% 1,484,542
2006 5.15% / 3.94% 655,919

Lt. Governor Patrick’s comparative caution toward supporting unlicensed carry in the Texas Senate may represent an edge case in this analysis, but Patrick’s position is slightly different as a result of his relatively close call the last time he was on the ballot in 2018, particularly compared to Abbott’s much more comfortable margin of victory. (Patrick defeated the determined but very underfunded Mike Collier by less than five percentage points, just over 400,000 votes; Abbott defeated Lupe Valdez by more than 13 points, or just over 1.1 million votes.) It’s possible that Patrick still feels more vulnerable in the general election. It’s also possible that, as The Texas Tribune’Patrick Svitek reported, the votes are not all there in the Senate. This could provide Patrick cover for not passing or weakening the bill as he manages influential interest groups representing police and gun-owners. But a close reading of Patrick’s statement (“If we have the votes to pass a permitless carry bill off the Senate floor, I will move it,") suggests that he is also in the position to present himself as the hero who carried the legislation over the finish line when it hit an obstacle, should the opportunity present itself. 

However Lt. Gov. Patrick and the Senate play HB 1927, recognizing Republican incumbents' renewed focus on primary season helps explain both the relentless drive to produce policies on guns that most Texans  – or in some cases, even most Republicans – aren't asking for. Even when a majority of Republicans are happy with what their elected officials have given them, that’s not judged good enough to differentiate an insecure incumbent from a potential primary challenger. (For other signs, see, for example, that only 13% of Texans, including only 21% of Republicans, would ban abortion in all circumstances, despite a trigger bill making its way through the legislature that would ban the procedure in Texas if Roe v. Wade is overturned, amidst other boundary-testing bills moving thorugh the process.)

Recognizing that Republican officials are playing to primary voters is no great insight nor is it a completely new phenomenon, of course. But it is a sign of a very public reversion to the GOP of the late oughts and most of the 2010’s. The 2018 election worried many Republican incumbents that the end of their dominance of general elections was closer than heretofore thought, a belief that resulted in a 2019 legislative session with far fewer, and less successful, legislative forays into the extreme policy proposals moving relatively swiftly through both chambers now. But the 2020 election results in Texas and, ironically enough, the GOP consolidation in Texas that coincided with Donald Trump’s national defeat, have for the present put an end to all that. With expectations of new maps resulting from a Republican-dominated redistricting process and the historic election pattern that favors the party not in the White House in mid-term races, fears of a potentially competitive Democratic Party have receded. For now, 2021 is all about the 2022 primaries.