THE BLOG
01/26/2016 02:39 pm ET Updated Jan 26, 2017

Packing Heat in the Lone Star State: Why Texas Abandoned Progressive Gun Control Policy

Erich Schlegel via Getty Images

Faced with terrorism, an epidemic of violent crime, and a rising homicide rate, Texas Republicans concluded that a pistol-packing citizenry posed a threat to public safety. After studying the issue and collecting data, they passed legislation that banned citizens from carrying firearms in cities in the Lone Star State.

Texas? Republicans? Yes. The law they adopted in 1871 remained in force for over a century. And for decades -- even though the Texas Constitution, like its federal counterpart, guaranteed the right to keep and bear arms -- Texas courts upheld the law as a reasonable regulation.

"In the wake of the Tea Party revolt, too many political leaders have chosen to appeal to fear rather than hope and develop policy prescriptions out of emotion rather than analysis."

Not until 1995 did Texas lawmakers join the movement to allow citizens to carry concealed weapons in public. And just a few weeks ago, Texas became the most populous state in the Union to pass an "open carry law" that allows citizens to carry guns openly in public places. So in Texas, you can now strap on a holster with a .45 before you stroll into the Capitol or the local 7-Eleven.

Why the change? It's not because Texas has become more dangerous since the early 1870s. When the restriction on carrying firearms was adopted, the Civil War was a recent memory; the Ku Klux Klan and other groups used terrorist tactics to reassert white control over emancipated slaves; violent clashes frequently erupted between Confederates and Unionists; and notorious desperadoes like John Wesley Hardin, Cole Blease, and others preyed on blacks and whites alike. Much of the state was frontier and lay beyond the reach of the law.

How much more violent was Texas in the years after the Civil War than today? The homicide rate was 15 times greater in 1868 than in 2014 -- 38 per 100,000 compared to 2.2 per 100,000. Indeed, in the past three decades, homicides have fallen dramatically. Since 1980, the population in the Lone Star State has almost doubled, but the number of reported homicides has decreased by about 50 percent.

While the data suggest that Texans are far safer today than in 1871, if one listens to many of the state's political leaders, citizens live under constant threat of violent crime and must be able to carry arms to protect themselves and their families. "An armed society is a safe society, so any time you have gun control, there is far more opportunity to become victims," reasoned one legislative supporter of expanding the right to pack heat.

Why the disconnect between perception and policy on the one hand and reality on the other? Why are Texans safer yet feeling more vulnerable? Certainly, it's a manifestation of single-issue politics and the power of the National Rifle Association. But it also reflects the failure of political leadership and the triumph of the politics of fear.

Texas Republicans of the 1860s and 1870s were the Party of Lincoln. They believed in progress and viewed government as its agent. They extended civil rights to former slaves, created a public education system, and expanded the state's transportation infrastructure. In the face of evidence -- carefully assembled evidence -- that progress was threatened by violence, they restricted the right to carry firearms in public.

In the wake of the Tea Party revolt, too many political leaders have chosen to appeal to fear rather than hope and develop policy prescriptions out of emotion rather than analysis. The Republican Presidential debates attest to this. Illegal immigrants, affirmative action, feminism, Muslim refugees, violent criminals, government restrictions on individual liberty, GOP candidates insist, threaten the rights and well-being of hard-working, law-abiding, tax-paying citizens.

Damn the data. Don't bother with the facts. Decent people and their rights are being threatened. Bold action is required. Citizens' constitutional right to carry arms must be restored.

"Appealing to fear has always been a powerful force in American politics. ... But if fear is a powerful force in our politics, so is hope."

Appealing to fear has always been a powerful force in American politics. Historian Richard Hofstadter argued as much in his 1964 classic, The Paranoid Style in American Politics. The Tea Party, Donald Trump, and the advocates of "open carry" are merely the latest manifestation of an old, if seamy, tradition.

But if fear is a powerful force in our politics, so is hope. In the face of economic collapse, Franklin Roosevelt assured Americans, "We have nothing to fear but fear itself." Ronald Reagan proclaimed, "It's morning in America again." And the greatest of our political leaders, Abraham Lincoln, appealed to "the better angels of our nature" even in the face of impending Civil War.

The insanity of transforming public places into armed camps should cause us to take a hard look at contemporary political discourse and reject the politics of fear. If we don't, we may stoke the violence that Texas Republicans of the 1870s attempted to contain and Texas Republicans of the 2010s seem likely to revive.

Nieman is professor of history and provost at Binghamton University.