Texas (Houston): "Area counties state's most armed"

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Dec 24, 2002
Looking for a cow that Queen Meadhbh stole

Area counties state's most armed
Dec. 29, 2002, 2:32PM

Area counties state's most armed
League City ZIP code has highest number of concealed guns
Copyright 2002 Houston Chronicle

In League City, southeast of Houston, arching oaks line Main Street, NASA moms schlep children to soccer practice and more neighbors pack heat than anywhere else in Texas.

In this Galveston County burg, as in other far-flung Houston suburbs, the state's rough-and-tumble image as the outspoken-est, gun-totin'-est state in the Union runs smack into the quietude of some of the most peaceful suburban neighborhoods. The League City ZIP code of 77573 has more concealed weapons licenses than any other.

A Houston Chronicle analysis of state records shows that three Houston-area counties have the most licensed gun holders per capita among Texas' most populous counties. Galveston, Montgomery and Brazoria counties lead the brigade among those with at least 100,000 residents.

Since Texas began allowing residents to obtain licenses to carry concealed guns in 1995, the Department of Public Safety has issued more than 220,000 permits. About 15 percent of them have gone to residents of Harris County, which is home to 16 percent of the state's population.

Across the state, a little more than one in every 100 adults can legally carry a pistol. In Galveston, Montgomery and Brazoria counties, however, nearly three in every 100 hold a license.

Smith County in East Texas and McClennan County (where Waco is the county seat) round out the top five.

The prototypical license holder is a middle-age suburban or rural Anglo man. Anglo men hold 165,000, or 74 percent, of all the licenses, followed by Anglo women with 37,766.

Combined, Anglos, who make up 52 percent of the state's population, own 91 percent of the gun licenses.

A closer look at Houston-area neighborhoods pinpoints where the guns are. Half of the state's 20 most-armed -- or, at least, the most legally armed -- ZIP codes are in the suburbs of Houston.

The League City ZIP code, with 843 permit holders, outpaces any other place in the state. Alvin, Cypress, Friendswood, Deer Park, Sugar Land, Baytown, Pearland and La Porte are other communities where a frustrated driver should, perhaps, reconsider road rage.

Galveston County sheriff's Capt. B.J. Miller said he supports Joe Suburbia's right to protect his property. Still, he expressed the concern that neighborhoods and law officers have with heavily armed residents.

"If we have 500 people licensed to carry guns, does that just mean we have 500 upstanding citizens clean enough to pass the stringent background check?" Miller asked. "Or does it mean we have a bunch of people running around putting justice in their own hands instead of where it should be?

"On the other hand, if we don't allow legal guns, only the criminals will have guns."

The relatively low violent crime totals in those areas raises the question: Do guns make the cities safer, or were they safe before concealed guns were allowed?

"Having a license gives a macho feeling, that you are somehow safer and stronger," said Dave Smith, founder and president of Texans for Gun Safety. Smith's area of west Houston is home to 372 people licensed to carry concealed weapons.

"If you ask a gun owner why they carry, they will tell you it's for protection," Smith said. "Protection from whom? I'm not quite sure what we're afraid of in our mid- to upper-class neighborhoods."

Kendal Hemphill, a Hill Country outdoors writer, said residents in the safe neighborhoods are not overprotective, but those in more violent neighborhoods are foolishly underprotected.

"A great many American citizens who live in high-crime areas, and may actually need to defend themselves don't carry guns, legally or otherwise," Hemphill said. "There seems to be an unreasonable fear of guns among many.

"It takes very little intelligence to understand that the armed citizen is safer than the unarmed one," he said. "Some are afraid of accidents with guns but don't mind driving after having a few drinks. But there is no question that driving, drunk or otherwise, kills far more people than accidents with guns."

Last year, 3,922 people died in auto accidents in Texas, compared with 2,310 gun deaths, according to the Texas Department of Health's Bureau of Vital Statistics. Of those, 72 people died in shootings that were accidental or for which a cause was not determined.

Of the remaining gun deaths, 1,372 were suicides and 866 were homicides.

When small counties are included, Comal County has the state's highest rate of concealed-weapons permits, with nearly one of every 12 adults under license. Mark Stephens, county election coordinator for the National Rifle Association, said gun owners in the New Braunfels area are not so much afraid of violent crime as eager to deter property crimes such as theft.

"Criminals aren't idiots," Stephens said. "They don't want to get shot any more than anyone else does. They will go someplace where they are not going to be opposed."

While license holders may intend to use their guns for legal purposes, however, a study released this month by the group Americans for Gun Safety focuses on the number of stolen guns used in violent crimes.

"Obviously, they are stolen from people who claimed they were protecting themselves from theft," said organization spokesman Mark Bennett.

Americans for Gun Safety opposes liberal gun ownership policies in Texas and other states.

According to its study, 152,000 guns were stolen in Texas in the past decade, second only to California. The study did not provide statistics on the number of violent crimes associated with those guns, but a 2000 survey by the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms determined that 88 percent of guns used in crimes had been stolen or otherwise illegally transferred to the final users.

But to some, there are not enough license holders in Texas.

Gun dealer Neal Seaman and his wife are skedaddling from South Carolina to a ranch south of Odessa because they don't consider their home state gun-friendly enough.

Seaman helped to change legislation in South Carolina to allow concealed handguns on state property, including schools. The state does not, however, allow concealed semiautomatic guns. Texas does.

Through his Web site and affiliation with the fledgling Texas Independent Party, the dealer already has begun a campaign to push for legislation allowing concealed guns on all public property in Texas. The movement has more than 5,000 supporters, he said.

"We're going to hit the ground running full blast," Seaman said. "Texans, through no fault of their own, believe they are free. They are not free yet."

By and large, concealed-gun permit holders have followed the laws. A few have had their licenses revoked, however.

In the seven years since the permits were offered, the state revoked 2,023 licenses because their holders committed certain crimes, such as felony driving while intoxicated. Others used their guns to commit crimes.

In April 2001, for example, Alberto Ruiz Fabila, 39, shot an off-duty Houston police officer with a .45-caliber pistol he was licensed to carry. The officer, working security at an east Houston nightclub, was trying to disarm Fabila when the gun fired and wounded the officer in the hand.

Fabila was convicted in February of aggravated assault on a public servant and sentenced to six years in state prison.

Such cases, although rare, call into question the merit of letting people carry guns, said Miller, the Galveston County sheriff's captain.

"The bad side is, if somebody gets shot with one of these guns, we have to investigate whether there was an alternative," he said. "Was this the best way, a legal way, for a person to defend himself?"

The gun debate plays out with race, class and politics as a backdrop.

Gun country tends to encompass the most predominantly Anglo areas of the state, according to the geographic distribution of handgun licenses. A number of pro-gun Web sites -- not including the NRA's -- also take on issues of race, homosexuality and immigration.

Gun shows and gun-rights literature often feature Confederate flags and -- to the dismay of some gun enthusiasts -- language tying the need for gun ownership to the movement of ethnic minorities into neighborhoods.

Smith, the anti-gun activist, said the pairing of guns and ultraconservative ideas on race and sex has its roots in "white flight" and demographic change in urban areas.

"Carrying a concealed handgun is primarily a white male thing," said Smith, an Anglo who served in the Army Air Corps during World War II. "A lot of white males feel threatened by modern society because they see minority groups getting equal treatment along with them. Being a white male doesn't mean you automatically have the position in society or respect that it used to. Carrying a gun does."

Local activist Quanell X said more blacks should learn how to use and store guns. Members of his New Black Panther Party have carried guns to public events, including the 2000 state Republican convention in Houston.

"If you go to a gun show with 3,000 people there in Houston, you can count on your fingers how many blacks are there -- and you wouldn't have to use two hands," he said. "This is all about fear of people of color and low-income people. So we should be part of the process."

Stephens, the NRA representative from Comal County, countered that gun ownership and political beliefs align "because conservatives believe in their own responsibility for self-defense." He said other activist groups should arm themselves if they believe they are likely targets for violence.

A group of gay residents in Houston's Montrose district (home to 122 license holders) agreed that people not usually associated with the gun rights movement might have more reason to carry concealed weapons than straight, suburban Anglos.

"A lot of gay groups are anti-weapons," said Dan Weiner, head of the Houston gun group Pink Pistols. "But that's one reason people think we're such easy victims. We're supposed to be good little boys and girls and just run away. For those of us tired of being victims, that is not at all true. We have to arm ourselves."

Staff writer Dan Feldstein contributed to this story.
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