Bayou City

How to Not Get Killed When Driving With a Gun in Texas

A dashboard camera shows the moments before a Minnesota police officer shot and killed motorist Philando Castile.
A dashboard camera shows the moments before a Minnesota police officer shot and killed motorist Philando Castile. Screen grab from USA Today
You’re driving south on I-69 in Houston. You can see the downtown skyline in your rear-view mirror. Suddenly, the lights of a police car flash and you remember that you – a legal gun owner – are carrying your firearm in the car.

What do you do? How do you explain to the officer you have a gun without spooking him or her? How do you make sure you don’t get shot?

It seems like an excessive worry, but the police shooting of Philando Castile, whose death was famously broadcast on Facebook Live by his girlfriend after he was shot during a traffic stop in Minnesota last summer, raised an alarm for policymakers. Castile explained to the officer that he had his gun on him before being shot, and a year later, in response, Arizona is taking steps to ensure its drivers know what to do if pulled over while carrying a gun. The Houston Press spoke with local law enforcement and gun advocacy groups about how Texans can be certain their firearms don't get them killed.

Department of Public Safety troopers pulled over more than 2 million drivers in 2016, and more than 1 million Texans are licensed to own a gun. The department doesn’t spell out any requirements if a driver is pulled over while carrying, but the state does have rules in place for people with Licensed to Carry permits. The Texas Handgun License manual instructs drivers who are pulled over to display their handgun licenses along with their driver's license when an officer asks for identification.

“I would say 99.9 percent of the citizens who have a permitted [gun] are very [conscious] and aware to let us know that they are carrying,” said Kenneth Campbell, captain of the Houston Police Department Traffic Enforcement Division.

The statute has been around since 1995, explained Alice Tripp, the legislative director for the Texas State Rifle Association, and licensees technically should be aware of the rule since it’s part of the written exam required to obtain the permit.

“If you blow it, you blow it, but I’ve never heard of a problem,” Tripp said.

In general, common sense is the best practice when you're pulled over with a firearm. Don’t reach for a gun. Don’t even point at it, said Campbell, the Houston police officer. If the gun’s in the glove box with your insurance information, let the officer know and, still, it is probably best to avoid moving.

“Some people might say, ‘Yeah, I have one right here in my center console.’ Well, ‘Whoa, whoa, whoa, don’t do that.’” Campbell said.

Texas does not have any open carry regulations for long guns like rifles or shotguns, so a driver is not required to voluntarily offer that information. The same goes if you are carrying without a permit, as when you are transporting firearms for whatever reason.

Letting a police officer know “will put us all at ease,” said Campbell. Although in Castile’s case, he did voluntarily reveal he was carrying and was shot by an officer anyway.

Campbell said his division reviewed procedures after the Castile killing – as it does after all well-publicized police shootings across the country. Tripp, for her part, answered with a definite “no” when asked if the state rifle association felt compelled to remind its members about proper procedures in light of the killing last July.

One reason Arizona may appear more eager about cementing procedure is the state’s constitutional carry law, which permits that residents who are legally allowed to possess a firearm – or just about everyone – can carry a concealed weapon without a permit. Republican State Representative Jonathan Strickland's proposal for a constitutional carry statute in Texas died before making the House floor this fall. In Texas, handgun license information is tied in with a driver’s license, so a cop could conceivably know a driver has a license from the computer in his car.

Still, caution is necessary – from both the officer and the driver.

“It’s all about communication,” Campbell said. “Having positive and effective communications with the citizen is of the upmost importance.”
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Joseph Fanelli is a reporting fellow at the Houston Press with an interest in education, crime and eccentric people everywhere.