The process for obtaining a gun in Texas has never been very hard. In fact, Texas requires only that those who seek to obtain a gun are “21 years of age, not felons, fugitives, people who are chemically dependent or incapable of exercising sound judgment, and those in arrears for taxes or child support.” No gun safety course is required, and, on January 1, Texas put into effect a new open-carry law that allows all residents of Texas who have a gun license to legally carry guns in a belt or holster without concealment. There is no waiting list, no state registration, and no bans on any types of guns or the number of rounds a gun can fire.
But in what many view as true gun madness, and in a marked change from prior law, the new law now allows licensed gun owners to bring their guns into any of the state psychiatric hospitals. The Statesman summarizes the difference between the old law and the new.
“Until this year, guns were banned at the state-run facilities, which house people with serious mental illnesses. No one — visitors, delivery people and the like — could bring firearms anywhere on the hospitals’ campuses. Even local law enforcement officers, who were allowed to bring their weapons into the facilities, regularly lock up their guns before entering Austin State Hospital out of an abundance of caution. That isn’t expected to change.”
Even in a state where guns are viewed as an integral part of heritage and history, as well as a right, many question the idea of allowing guns into psychiatric facilities. Many advocates for mental health have openly condemned the idea, arguing that allowing guns within such facilities could “negatively impact patients’ treatments and could lead to an uptick in suicide rates.”
Carrie Williams, a spokeswoman for the Texas state health department, issued a statement asking for restraint and caution.
“With the new law in effect, we are putting up signs asking licensed gun holders to conceal their firearms or leave them safely in their vehicles before going into our state mental health hospitals. While licensed visitors are legally permitted to carry on our hospital campuses, our patients are being actively treated for psychiatric conditions and generally it’s best not to expose them to weapons of any kind.”
The state hospital in Austin took down its signs banning guns this week, but hospital officials have requested that if visitors do enter with their weapons, they at least keep them hidden. Simply because the law states that citizens can openly carry does not necessarily mean that doing so in a psychiatric hospital is the best idea.
The public policy director for the Texas branch of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, Gary Hansch, said the Alliance is staunchly against the new policy, saying that “it fosters fear and will be detrimental to the recovery of persons receiving treatment.”
Hansch said that allowing guns in psychiatric hospitals will make it easier for those who are suicidal to kill themselves, adding that of the roughly annual 30,000 deaths by gun in the United States, around two-thirds are ruled as suicides.
“The direction that state legislators and the governor are going in now is increasing the visibility and the availability of guns at state hospitals and that makes it more likely that the weapons will end up in the wrong hands,” Hansch explained.
The provision that allows guns in mental hospitals is actually due to a loophole within the open-carry law that Kirk Watson, a Democratic senator, tried to close last year during legislature, but he says that his amendment closing the loophole was “shut down without any debate,” with his Republican counterparts unwilling to compromise. In addition, a concealed “campus carry” bill in Texas means that it is now legal for Texas college students to carry a Glock into a public university dorm room, while items such as waffle irons are still not permitted.
“Part of the reason [the loophole] didn’t get closed is because of the desire to pander to a small but vocal group,” Watson said. “There’s some irony here because many who oppose reasonable restrictions on guns will often say that what we need is to have better mental healthcare… it’s just no place for people walking around with open weapons.”
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