A new kind of student is showing up in handgun instructor Michael Cargill’s classroom: teenagers.
Earlier in February, Cargill said two 19-year-old college students sat before him, pens in hand, ready to get their licenses to carry.
Until recently, most Texans had to wait until their 21st birthday to apply.
But a federal judge toppled the state’s age restrictions, and now thousands of young adults are eligible for licenses that will let them carry concealed handguns on public university campuses, into certain businesses and across state lines.
The Texas Department of Public Safety, which oversees the licensing process, announced the change in mid-January. Since then, the department said it has received more than 100 applications from newly eligible young adults and issued 17 licenses.
“As more people find out, there’s going to be an influx,” said Cargill, who owns a gun store in Austin.
The change marks a major shift in Texas gun policy.
It’s legal for those under 21 to carry long guns like rifles and semi-automatic rifles in public without a license. But state law, even under GOP leadership, has barred adults under 21 from getting licensed to publicly carry handguns unless they’re in the military or have an active protective order.
Gun rights advocates applauded the change, saying 18-, 19- and 20-year-olds who can vote and die for their country should be able to exercise their Second Amendment rights. But Democratic lawmakers decried the move as one that makes the state more dangerous in the wake of several deadly mass shootings, including last May’s massacre at an elementary school in Uvalde.
Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, both third-term Republicans, did not respond to requests for comment. House Speaker Dade Phelan, R-Beaumont, “doesn’t have a comment at this time,” a spokesperson said.
It’s not clear whether lawmakers will weigh the issue during the legislative session.
The Firearms Policy Coalition, a Nevada-based gun rights group, challenged the handgun age limits in 2021 on behalf of two Texans from Fannin and Parker counties. District Judge Mark Pittman of Fort Worth sided with the group last August, determining the statute violated the Second Amendment. Pittman, a Trump appointee, restrained DPS from enforcing the restrictions against “law-abiding 18-to-20-year-olds based solely on their age.”
The state initially sought to fight the judge’s order, but then withdrew the appeal in December, effectively letting Pittman’s order stand.
Last month, DPS stopped enforcing the handgun age limits.
Neither DPS nor the Texas attorney general’s office, which represented the state agency, has explained the reversal in court.
In a recent interview, DPS Director Steve McCraw told reporters the decision to drop the appeal was not his to make.
“That’s more of a policy matter. We don’t make those decisions along those lines; that’s decided by others for us,” McCraw said after a budgetary hearing on Feb. 9.
He declined to say who made the call or why. State Attorney General Ken Paxton’s office did not respond to a request for comment.
Emily Taylor, a Houston lawyer who is also registered as a lobbyist for Gun Owners of America, said her firm has fielded dozens of calls from adults under 21 interested in getting licensed.
The court decision was not unexpected, she said, in the wake of a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling that set a new legal test for vetting gun laws.
“This is probably going to be the first of very many Texas gun laws to begin to crumble in the face of this heightened Second Amendment review standard,” Taylor said.
The high court’s so-called Bruen decision last June stemmed from a case in New York and said that all gun laws must be consistent with the country’s “historical tradition of firearm regulation.” Already, the ruling has led courts across the country to deem unconstitutional a slew of firearm regulations meant to keep guns out of the hands of domestic abusers and away from subways and summer camps.
Pittman cited the Bruen decision in his own Aug. 25 ruling.
He wrote that the “plain text of the Second Amendment, as informed by Founding-Era history and tradition, covers the proposed course of conduct and permits law-abiding 18-to-20-year-olds to carry a handgun for self-defense outside the home.”
The change has sweeping implications. Now, a far larger swath of students are eligible for so-called campus carry, a contentious policy enacted in 2016 that allows license-holders to have concealed handguns at public universities.
The Dallas Morning News contacted several large university systems, but only the University of North Texas responded with a comment.
Laken Avonne Rapier, chief communications officer with the University of North Texas System, said the safety of students, staff and community is the No. 1 priority.
“We will continue to monitor and adhere to the laws and rights afforded to our community, while focusing on creating a safe and welcoming learning environment for all,” Rapier said in a written statement.
License-holders can also bring their guns into certain businesses and travel with them to other states, such as Oklahoma and Louisiana.
Sarah Kim, a second-year medical student in Houston who co-created a course for first-year students about firearm injury prevention, called the changes “really concerning.” She pointed to a high rate of firearm injuries and suicide among youth.
“This really isn’t a political concern; it’s a public health concern,” Kim said.
It remains to be seen how many young adults apply. The state’s licensing process requires passing a background check, taking a safety course, showing shooting proficiency and paying a fee.
Cargill said one of the 19-year-olds who applied earlier this month has already received his license. Over the weekend of Feb. 18-19, several more college students showed up for class, he said. The 18- and 19-year-olds told him they wanted the license for personal safety reasons.
State Sen. Roland Gutierrez, a Democrat who represents Uvalde, said the change will make Texas more dangerous — not safer. Along with families affected by the Uvalde shooting, Gutierrez is pushing for gun control measures this session, including raising the age to purchase long guns from 18 to 21.
During a recent news conference at the Capitol, he criticized DPS and the attorney general’s office for failing to defend the state’s handgun law.
“That happened under everybody’s noses,” he said.
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