The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

When Texas was the national leader in gun control

How the land of gunslinger mythology regulated weapons to reduce violence

High school students Celeste Lujan, left, and Yasmin Natera mourn their friend Leilah Hernandez, one of the victims of the shooting in Odessa, Tex., at a memorial service on Sept. 1. (Sue Ogrocki/AP)
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Two mass shootings last month have claimed 29 lives in Texas, drawing scrutiny and criticism of the state’s lax firearm regulations.

Among these policies: Gun owners can knowingly sell or transfer weapons to felons, making it one of the easiest states in which to carry out straw purchases. Texans are also not required to report lost or missing firearms to law enforcement, nor are large-capacity magazines restricted.

These mass shootings, which are far from the state’s first in recent memory, demonstrate that Texas needs a comprehensive approach to gun control. Instead of adopting stricter regulations, however, the state has continuously loosened its weapon laws despite mass shootings.

But that has not always been the case. Although Texans tout their state’s historical image as the land of Wild West shootouts and quick-draw cowboys and jealously guard their present-day reputation as a banner gun-rights state, Texas has historically had strict gun laws — some of the strictest in the nation. The story of their enactment in the turbulent post-Civil War era can provide valuable guidance as we confront our own gun violence crisis today.

Texas joined the United States as a state with lax gun laws. Before the Civil War, the state’s only gun-control laws were those that prohibited slaves from carrying weapons without their masters’ permission.

Things began to change in 1866, when former Confederates (calling themselves Conservatives) briefly controlled Texas. Gov. James Throckmorton called upon the legislature to tax the carrying of any pistol or knife in public. He had spent the war years as a Confederate officer policing the state’s northern and western borders, a region filled with well-armed deserters and desperados. He had little use for the “men and boys, vagabonds and vagrants” who “have arms about their people on all occasions.” Lawmakers’ fear of disarming poor whites, many of whom were Civil War veterans, derailed his weapon-tax proposal, but it became a harbinger of things to come.

Reconstruction brought military occupation, a new state constitution and a government in Austin controlled by the fledgling Republican Party. Texas Republicans were a biracial coalition of white Unionists and black freedmen led by Union veteran Edmund J. Davis of Corpus Christi. As governor, Davis promised to restore law and order to the state, which had gone from being pestered by criminal gangs to being terrorized by pro-Confederate vigilante groups like the Ku Klux Klan. As the primary targets of Klan violence, Republicans strongly believed laws limiting the carrying of weapons in public were necessary to restore peace in Texas.

Davis called upon the legislature to do something about “the universal habit of carrying arms,” which “is largely to be attributed the frequency of homicides in this state.” Lawmakers responded in 1870 with a prohibition of all weapons (including rifles and shotguns) at key public gatherings like polling places, church services and entertainment events.

But this push for gun control wasn’t entirely partisan. The following year, a critical mass of Democratic state legislators joined forces with the Republican majority to revamp the law and prohibit the carrying of any deadly weapon in public, whether worn openly or concealed. It became not only against the law to take a firearm to a crowded place, but also illegal to carry any “pistol, dirk, dagger, slung-shot, sword-cane, spear, brass-knuckles, bowie knife, or any other kind of knife manufactured or sold for the purposes of offense or defense,” with very few exceptions.

Postwar gun violence was so bloody that doing something about it had become a bipartisan policy. The Texans who endured the Civil War and its aftermath surmised that fewer guns in public meant fewer headstones in the cemetery.

While we lack crime statistics from that time period, all of the indirect evidence points toward a statewide reduction in violent crime after the passage of the deadly weapon laws, indicating they were correct. Commentators recognized the fact that “the firearm bill has robbed rowdies of their six-shooters, their bowie knives and their sword canes,” and Davis praised its “most happy effect” throughout the state.

But the far more telling evidence comes from the fact that when Democrats retook control of state government, they scrapped every piece of the Republican Party’s law-and-order platform — save for the deadly weapon laws. This was remarkable because violence — in violation of the weapon restrictions — was integral to Democrats coming to dominate Texas politics and creating the Jim Crow system of segregation. White militia companies blocked Republican voters from polling places, and armed, white-on-black intimidation and violence were commonplace.

Yet, despite benefiting from violations of the weapons ban, Democrats not only kept it in place, they also increased penalties and closed loopholes between the 1880s and 1920s. Texas Democrats experienced an early and strong progressive impulse near the turn of the 20th century. Many of these reformers firmly believed tougher laws and harsher penalties would disincentivize the habitual or casual carrying of weapons in public. In 1905, the minimum fine was raised from $25 to $100, and those unable to pay served time in county jails, laboring on road projects and county farms. The reformist Democrats went even further in the 1920s by banning automatic weapons and levying a 50 percent tax on all pistol sales in the state.

This tax proved ineffective when savvy salesmen began offering long-term leases for pistols at the old market price for purchase. Yet, undaunted, reform-minded Democrats passed a law making it a felony to unlawfully carry arms in Texas. It gave judges and juries the option of sending repeat offenders to the state penitentiary for up to three years. But for the veto of Gov. Oscar B. Colquitt, the state most closely identified with gunslingers and shootouts would have punished habitual pistol-toting as a felony. Colquitt threw the progressives a bone by supporting the addition of a new crime to the Texas penal code: assault with a prohibited weapon, which carried harsh penalties.

These deadly weapon laws were a significant departure from the trends set by other Southern and Western states. Most Southern states tended to prohibit only concealed weapons, while Western states largely allowed gun-toting outside settled areas. Texas’ laws put it at the forefront of the comprehensive gun regulations that we are familiar with today.

Although the deadly weapon laws were technically universal, without a doubt the Texans most vulnerable to arrest for unlawfully carrying arms were those of African American or Mexican descent. But their misuse by white supremacists during the era of Jim Crow should not overshadow the laws’ effectiveness at reducing violence or their reflection of widely held social values among Texans.

These laws also aren’t some relic of the distant past. They stayed on the books for over a century. It wasn’t until the mid-1990s, when the Republican Party became dominant in Texas politics, that a loosening of firearms regulations in the name of personal self-defense began. In 1995 then-Gov. George W. Bush signed a law authorizing properly licensed residents to carry concealed handguns, and in 2015 Gov. Greg Abbott put his signature to a bill allowing them to carry openly as well. Restrictions upon bladed weapons and metal knuckles have similarly been curtailed over the past 20 years.

The experience of the past generation has obscured the Lone Star State’s deep and long-standing history of gun regulation. That history is relevant today: It’s a reminder that when rampant bloodshed gripped Texas in the wake of the Civil War, a bipartisan group of lawmakers came together to pass strict gun laws that probably reduced violence, and whose legality and effectiveness Texans rarely questioned.

Yes, there were no organized pro-gun rights organizations in the late 19th century fighting back against these laws like the National Rifle Association does today. But the mood in the wake of El Paso and Odessa is reminiscent of the one from the turbulent Reconstruction years — a growing consensus is demanding that we do something to curtail gun-related deaths in our country. A century and a half ago, such a consensus in Texas led to strict regulation of deadly weapons, regulations that were both successful and relatively uncontroversial until recent decades. It is a history worth remembering.

This post has been updated.