HOUSTON, April 4 ‚Äö√Ñ√Æ Keith Patton was driving home one night in February when police officers pulled over his red Ford Explorer for a traffic stop. His license and insurance form were in his gym bag on the floor near the back seat. Under the bag was a .357 Magnum. Mr. Patton, 51, an oil-field geologist, software tester and martial arts instructor from suburban Katy, told the police about the gun, which he said he had bought hours before from a co-worker for target shooting. Moments later, he was handcuffed and on his way to jail, facing a charge of unlicensed carrying of a weapon. The arrest might have been routine elsewhere, but this is Texas, where a code rooted in the days of the highwayman recognizes the right of travelers to be armed, and the Legislature has repeatedly endorsed that principle.
We may no longer sleep under the stars next a dying campfire as coyotes serenade us. We no longer dispense frontier justice by hanging miscreants from the live oak in the town square. And we no longer defend the honor of our womenfolk by challenging the drunk and dishonorable to a duel. That doesn’t mean that Texans don’t like guns, though. Indeed, though the “need” to bear arms has long since passed, there are still many in this state who view their right to bear arms as being just slightly less important than their right to breathe and their right to hit on the married blonde at the end of the bar.
What’s surprising about this latest controversy is that it proves once again that politics really does make strange bedfellows. Did you ever think you’d see the American Civil Liberties Union and the National Rifle Association sleeping under the same sheets? Ohmigawd, I LOVE this country….
The conflict has led to a legal standoff and a new effort by legislators to resolve the issue. It has also inspired an unlikely alliance between the gun lobby, which has long drawn support from the political right, and civil liberties advocates, long identified with the left, in defense of pistol-packing travelers.
In a report issued in February, the Texas affiliate of the National Rifle Association joined the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas and the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition “to spotlight unlawful, unnecessary governmental encroachment on average law-abiding citizens.”
The report, “Above the Law: How Texas prosecutors are placing their own judgment over that of the Legislature and the law of the land,” found that district and county attorneys had instructed police officers to “unnecessarily” interrogate drivers and arrest them or take their weapons, “even if they are legally carrying the gun.”
“It’s all the self-interest of the job,” said Scott Henson, a civil liberties advocate and blogger who wrote the report. Mr. Henson contends that police officers are opposed to citizens’ carrying guns and that prosecutors depend on gun charges to strengthen weak cases and prompt plea bargains.
I can understand the fears of Texas peace officers, who, having a difficult and dangerous job under the best of circumstances, too often have to wonder whether a motorist has their finger on a trigger. Though I don’t dispute the notion that someone who would shoot a police officer is probably going to be illegally possessing a firearm to begin with, I fail to see how allowing motorists to carry weapons does anything to improve the situation. It’s illegal to discharge a firearm from a vehicle, so why should we be OK with a driver openly carrying a weapon while driving?
Nonetheless, Texas law as it currently exists allow drivers to carry. Police officers simply cannot enforce a law that doesn’t exist. Police and prosecutors may not believe that motorists should be armed, but that’s merely an opinion. That opinion does not and cannot carry the force of law.
Police officers and prosecutors are free to go to the Texas Legislature and ask that the law be changed (good luck with that one, cowboy….). In the meantime, they simply cannot take it upon themselves to deny Texas motorists a right guaranteed them under Texas law. As much as I hate siding with the NRA on ANYTHING, this country’s foundation is the rule of law. When law enforcement officials take it upon themselves to enforce the law as they think it should be, we’re just that much closer to a police state.
The law may be an ass, but it’s still the law….