Tony Earls bent his head in front of a row of television cameras, feeling his life turned upside down. Days earlier, Earls had drawn his gun and fired, trying to hit a man who had just robbed him and his wife at an ATM in Houston. Instead, he hit Arlene Alvarez, a 9-year-old girl in a passing pickup, and killed her.
“Is Earls licensed to carry a weapon?” a reporter asked during a February press conference, at which his lawyer spoke for him.
He didn’t have to, the lawyer replied. “Everything in this situation, we believe and assert, was justified by Texas law.” A grand jury later concurred, refusing to indict Earls for any crime.
The shootings, according to many sheriffs, police leaders and public prosecutors in urban Texas, have been part of a rise in the number of people carrying guns and ill-advised reactions since the state allowed most adults 21 and older to carry a firearm. unlicensed pistol.
At the same time, particularly in rural areas, other sheriffs said they saw little change, and gun rights advocates said the greater number of people legally carrying guns could be part of why shootings have slowed in some parts of the state.
Far from being an exception, Texas, with its new law, has joined what has been a growing effort to abolish almost all restrictions on the carrying of firearms. When Alabama’s “unauthorized possession” law goes into effect in January, half of the states in the country, from Maine to Arizona, will not require a license to carry a short-barreled gun.
State-by-state legislative pressure coincided with a federal judiciary that increasingly ruled in favor of gun ownership and against state efforts to regulate it.
But Texas is the most populous state to abolish gun permit requirements. Five of the country’s 15 largest cities are in Texas, making the approach of firearms without a permit a new fact in urban areas, to an extent not seen in other states.
In the border town of Eagle Pass, drunken arguments turned into gunfights. In El Paso, revelers who legally bring their guns to parties opened fire to stop fights. In and around Houston, prosecutors have seen a growing influx of cases involving guns displayed or fired over parking spaces, poor driving, loud music and love triangles.
“It looks like there’s now been a tipping point where everyone is armed,” said Sheriff Ed Gonzalez of Harris County, which includes Houston.
No statewide shooting statistics have been released since the law took effect last September. After a particularly violent 2021 in many parts of the state, the crime picture in Texas has been mixed this year, with homicides and assaults increasing in some places and decreasing in others.
But what has become clear is that far fewer people are getting new licenses for handguns, even though many police officers say the number of guns they find on the street has increased.
Major city police departments and major law enforcement groups opposed the new firearms law when it was introduced to the state legislature last spring, worried in part about the loss of the permit-taking training requirement and a greater risk for police officers.
But gun rights advocates prevailed on the Republican-dominated Capitol, arguing that Texans should not need state permission to exercise their Second Amendment rights.
The loosening of regulations also took place in the midst of the national crime debate. Researchers have long debated the effect of allowing more people to legally own and carry guns. But a number of recent studies have found a link between easier gun laws and increased crime, and some have raised the possibility that more guns in circulation lead to more gun thefts and more police shootings.
“The weight of evidence has shifted in the direction that more guns equal more crime,” said John J. Donohue III, a professor at Stanford Law School and author of several recent studies on gun regulation and crime.
Much of the research has been on the effects of making it easier to obtain permits, part of the so-called right-to-carry laws, and Donohue cautioned that there is only limited data on laws that, in most cases, do not require any permits.
“I think most people are reasoning by analogy: if you thought the right of possession was harmful, it will be worse,” he said.
But John R. Lott Jr., a former researcher whose 1998 book, “More Guns, Less Crime,” was influential among gun rights advocates, said the latest studies have not taken into account differences between state gun regulations that could explain the rise in crime. He also pointed to some recent declines in crime in Texas cities after the permit-free law went into effect, and what he sees as the importance of increasing legal gun ownership in high-crime areas.
“If my research convinces me of anything,” Lott said, “it’s that you’ll get the biggest reduction in crime if the people who are the most likely victims of violent crime, predominantly poor blacks, are the ones taking permits.”
In Dallas, there has been an increase in the number of justifiable homicides, such as those committed in self-defense, even with an overall reduction in shootings from last year’s high levels.
“We’ve had justifiable shootings where potential victims defended themselves,” Dallas Police Chief Eddie Garcia said. “It works both ways.”
Last October, in Port Arthur, Texas, a man with a gun, who had a license, saw two armed robbers in a diner and fired through the drive-thru window, fatally hitting one of the men and injuring the other. His actions were praised by the local prosecutor.
Michael Mata, president of the local police union in Dallas, said he and his fellow officers saw no increase in violent crime linked to the new possession-free law, even though there were “absolutely” more guns on the streets.
Sheriff David Soward of Atascosa County, a rural area south of San Antonio, said he has also not seen a clear increase in shootings. “Only a small percentage of people actually take advantage of the law,” he said.
For many officers, however, the connection between the new law and the spontaneous shootings was evident.
“Now that everyone can carry guns, we have people who drink and start shooting each other,” said Maverick County Sheriff Tom Schmerber, which includes Eagle Pass. “People get emotional,” he said, “and instead of using their fist, they take a gun. We’ve had a lot of shootings like that.”
Revolver licenses are still available. The process involves a background check and approximately five-hour training course, including at a shooting range, which addresses the legal issues that can arise from opening fire.
The number of new permits applied for by Texans increased with the pandemic, but declined sharply through 2021 as the unlicensed possession bill passed the legislature. An average of less than 5,000 per month was issued in 2022, lower than at any time since 2017.
Many Texans still want the license because of the benefits it offers, including the ability to carry a concealed weapon at a government meeting. But it is no longer needed.
“Someone could walk into a sports store here in El Paso, buy a gun and walk out with it after a background check,” said Ryan Urrutia, commander of the El Paso sheriff’s office. “It really puts the police at a disadvantage, because it puts more weapons on the streets that can be used against us.”
The law also prohibits carrying a weapon for those convicted of a crime, those who are intoxicated or committing another crime. In Harris County, criminal cases involving illegal possession of weapons have increased dramatically since the new law took effect: 3,500 so far this year in mid-October, up from 2,300 for all of 2021 and an average of about 1,000. cases in previous years going back to 2012.
“It’s shocking,” said Kim Ogg, the Harris County District Attorney. “We’ve seen more people carrying guns, which in itself would be cool. But people are carrying guns while committing other crimes, and I’m not just talking about violent crimes. I’m talking about intoxication crimes or driving or property crimes, carrying weapons on school property or in any other prohibited location,” including bars and school grounds.
His office provided a sample of arrests in recent weeks: a 21-year-old man carrying a pistol and a second clip of ammunition as he walked across an elementary school grounds during school hours; a man jumping out of his car and opening fire on a driver in a rage in the street; a woman, while helping her little brother into a car, turning to shoot another woman after an argument over a video on social media.