Former Air Force pilot MJ Hegar, a Democrat challenging Republican U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, is calling for an end to open carry.
The issue has never attracted the same sort of urgency from gun safety advocates as expanding background checks or banning assault-style weapons. But advocates say that is changing as protests rage on. They point to the Austin case and other high-profile shootings, including in Kenosha, Wis., where 17-year-old Kyle Rittenhouse is accused of killing two protesters and injuring a third with an AR-15-style rifle.
Like Texas, Wisconsin state law allows for rifles to be carried openly, though the state requires the carrier to be 18, meaning Rittenhouse likely was breaking the law. Police didn’t stop him before the shooting, despite video showing them offering him water.
“These cases are exactly why we need to curb open carry,” Hegar said. “Open carry in this day and age only serves to escalate the division and violence in our communities. Recent incidents show us that open carry is no longer about freedom but violence.”
Gun violence prevention groups that have backed Hegar — and plan to spend heavily in her favor — say it’s a position that will appeal to suburban voters, especially suburban women, a key demographic Hegar will need to carry if she is to be the first Democrat to win a statewide race in Texas in a generation.
Hegar’s backers believe she’s an ideal messenger on the issue as a mother, gun owner and decorated war veteran.
“We haven’t seen statements like this in a long time, and it goes to her experience,” said Brian Lemek, executive director of the Brady PAC, a group that supports candidates pushing for new gun laws. “How many people out there can say … ‘I took on fire from the Taliban, I have scars to show it.’ She understands the dangers.”
Pro-gun groups say Hegar is just trying to find anything that will help her gain traction as she trails Cornyn in polling and fundraising.
“She’s looking for anything she can get and she’s targeting probably new people who have moved to Texas, probably urban people, urban mothers or women,” said Mike Cox, legislative director of the Texas State Rifle Association. “She’s looking for anything.”
But Hegar — who owns five guns, including a semi-automatic assault-style rifle — has been calling to end open carry since at least last year, well before she won her party’s nomination, when she called open carry “an assault on every bystander within range.”
While the coronavirus and economic downturn have dominated much of the campaign season so far — and Hegar says they will remain the most important issues of the race — polling in Texas has shown support for gun laws, including universal background checks, red flag laws and banning assault-style weapons, especially after mass shootings in El Paso and Midland-Odessa last year.
Polling data shows a solid majority in favor of “sensible gun laws”, but that leaves a lot of room for interpretation. It’s also not clear how much a specific position might persuade someone to cross over to vote for a candidate they otherwise wouldn’t have supported, or how much a strong position on this issue affects turnout on either side. Be that as it may, the only path forward for new gun laws at the federal level begins with a Democratic majority in both chambers of Congress, and so for obvious reasons a Senator MJ Hegar advances that possibility. Federal laws and policies can also influence state laws, but that will depend on a whole other set of elections here. All of that said, I think we can agree that it’s a new day in Texas when a serious contender for statewide office can openly embrace stronger gun laws as a key part of her candidacy. I feel confident saying that hasn’t happened before. Even if she loses, this won’t be a one-off event. Expect to see more of this in the 2022 elections, when serious change at the state level is on the ballot.