AUSTIN, Texas - Despite its reputation as the trigger-happy heart of American gun culture, Texas is late to the open carry party, at least when it comes to handguns. On New Year's Day, it'll become the 45th state to legalize carrying a pistol in plain sight.
The relaxed rules passed the GOP-controlled state Legislature only after police groups defeated a provision backed by an unlikely coalition of tea party conservatives and Democrats that sought to bar law enforcement from asking Texas residents whether they had a proper license to carry guns that are visible.
But, as the new law looms, some officers are backing off, saying they won't demand to see a license if they have no other reason to stop a gun carrier. Not doing so could avoid harassment lawsuits - even if would-be criminals could carry guns without fear of getting caught.
"We're going to assume they're a license holder, probably," Austin Police Department training commander Andy Michael said of asking after licenses.
Texas already allows openly carrying rifles and shotguns, but has banned having handguns visible since just after the Civil War. It'll be the largest state to sanction some form of open carry, with California, Florida, Illinois, New York, and South Carolina still banning it.
Texas had nearly 826,000 concealed-license holders in 2014, which ranks among the nation's highest. Openly carrying a gun will require obtaining the same license concealed weapons holders have - be at least 21, have clean criminal and psychology records, complete a training course and pass a shooting test. Concealed handguns are even allowed inside the Texas Capitol, where license holders can bypass metal detectors.
Texas also has the country's most federal firearms license holders, from manufacturers to dealers, and the state cites its relaxed gun ownership rules in lobbying gun makers to move here. The National Rifle Association has traditionally pumped tens of thousands of dollars into Texas' state political races, more than it spent many other places, though contribution totals look to be waning recently.
The original open carry bill included a "no-stop" provision barring police from demanding to see the license of someone simply for openly carrying their gun.
Tea party legislators didn't want Second Amendment rights infringed, while Democrats worried about racial profiling, concerned that blacks and Hispanics might be asked for their licenses more than their white counterparts.
"If I get a gun, I guess I'd better put my hands up," State Sen. Rodney Ellis, a Houston Democrat who is black, said when the measure was debated on the Senate floor.