A Second Amendment case recently argued before the Supreme Court has the potential to drastically increase the number of people carrying handguns in the United States. According to the plaintiff, an NRA affiliate called NYSRPA, the New York handgun licensing law in question breaks with historical tradition by requiring permit applicants to demonstrate a heightened need for self-defense.
In NYSRPA v. Bruen, gun rights advocates argue that Americans have always had the right to be armed in public just in case an emergency should arise. Some have now gone so far as to say that there is not “a single instance before the twentieth century of someone being successfully prosecuted for the bare act of carrying a common firearm for self-defense.”
But Texas history proves them wrong.
In fact, a longstanding Texas law (in effect from 1871 to 1995) shows that there is an American tradition of restricting handguns in public and requiring weapon-carriers to show a heightened need for self-defense. That law, which gained bipartisan support during one of the most politically contentious periods in American history, forbade carrying pistols, knives and some other small weapons—whether they were carried openly or concealed.
There were a few exceptions to this sweeping disarmament policy, and one of them was for anyone who had “reasonable grounds for fearing an unlawful attack” that was “immediate and pressing.” This “self-defense exception” was actually more restrictive than modern handgun licensing laws like the one being challenged in New York. Anyone claiming the self-defense exception was still arrested for breaking the law—they just had an option to plead self-defense at trial!
In Texas, “the bare act of carrying a common firearm for self-defense” was unlawful—at least in the sense of “self-defense” as gun-rights proponents mean it today, which is a right to be armed at all times just in case an unforeseen emergency arises.
This law was enforced, too.
My study of criminal misdemeanor records from Texas county archives found more than 3,000 cases of “unlawful carrying” from the 4 sample counties I visited—a drop in the bucket for a state with 254 counties in total.
Of those cases, 1,284 were from the years 1871 to 1899—clearly defying NYSRPA’s inference that there was not a “single instance” of someone being arrested for the “bare act” of carrying a “common firearm” for self-defense prior to the twentieth century. These late-nineteenth-century cases include 690 that were adjudicated, with a conviction rate of 82%.
Some of the cases that were appealed involved Texans arguing the very point that NYSRPA is today—that they had a right to carry a weapon if they wanted to, or just in case someone should try to hurt them. But the judges of Texas consistently held that the self-defense exception to this law was limited to specific, unusual circumstances involving a heightened risk of bodily harm to the carrier—all of which had to be proven in court.
The new gun-rights strategy emerging from the upcoming NYSRPA v. Bruen case is to assume that historical public carry laws were not enforced and write them off as irrelevant. But doing so means ignoring the evidence from Texas, which shows us that handgun licensing programs and other public carry laws grew out of a long Anglo-American tradition of restricting the presence of weapons in public—one dating back to the medieval era.
As industrialization made weapons more lethal, more widely available, and more dangerous to the public, lawmakers looked for new ways of protecting the community from the bloody consequences of a public sphere filled with guns. The fact that the details and wording of gun control policies changed over time is not a compelling reason to dismiss older laws like this one from Texas as somehow uniquely irrelevant to today’s Second Amendment questions.
NYSRPA’s brief broke the cardinal rule to “never say never” because someone is sure to bring up an exception. At the very least, the story of Texas is the exception which NYSRPA and the NRA don’t want you to see. But what if Texas isn’t an exception? What if robust regulation and nationwide contempt for public carry used to be the rule?