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Long ago, Texans weren't allowed to own pistols without a judge's approval

June 19, 2022 at 10:00 p.m.
Demonstrators join the "March for Our Lives" rally in Houston on June 11, 2022, as protesters gather across the U.S. for tighter firearms laws to curb devastating gun violence plaguing the country. (Mark Felix/AFP/Getty Images/TNS)

Texans might be surprised to know state law once prohibited a person from purchasing a pistol without a " certificate of good character " from a judge.

In fact, owning a pistol without a judge's approval was a crime in Texas for nearly 30 years.

"No person may purchase a pistol unless said purchaser has secured from a Justice of Peace, County Judge, or District Judge in the county of his or her residence a certificate of good character," said the law, which was enacted in 1931.

A person who got a pistol without a character reference could be found guilty of a misdemeanor.

Timothy Stewart-Winter, a historian and professor at Rutgers University in New Jersey, shared old newspaper clippings about past gun laws on Twitter last week. Other laws in Texas prohibited people from carrying pistols on themselves or in their saddles and outlawed the sale of pistols to anyone under age 21.

Dallas-based lawyer Doug Gladden, who also took part in the Twitter discourse about archaic firearm laws, found that in the 1800s, carrying a gun was unlawful except for two stated reasons: if the gun carrier had reasonable grounds for fearing an unlawful attack and that such ground of attack shall be immediate and pressing, or in the defense of the state.

"It shows at least willingness back then to try to regulate the sale of certain weapons that were viewed to be dangerous in their time," Gladden said.

As policymakers in Austin and Washington debate current gun laws in the wake of the Uvalde massacre and other mass shootings, it remains to be seen whether Texas has the political will to revisit some of its own old laws or agree on new laws to limit who can get a gun.

Before Gov. Greg Abbott signed the so-called permitless carry legislation in 2021, someone 21 or older had to clear a background check, among other requirements, to obtain a state-issued license to carry handguns outside the carrier's home or vehicle. But even before the requirement was waived, Texas did not require universal background checks on all gun purchases.

Texas has made it easier for people to get guns since the 1931 law was challenged in 1958, when the state's Court of Criminal Appeals ruled it unconstitutional. In that case, a man had pleaded guilty to a part of the same law that prohibited selling a pistol to a minor without parental consent.

Not every judge on the court agreed with the decision.

Judge Lloyd Witten Davidson wrote in a dissenting opinion: "In order to affirm this conviction it is necessary to hold that (the law) is not a valid law of this state and never has been. ... To that conclusion I can not and do not agree."

But the law was still used in practice after the court rejected it; according to a 1960 article in the Austin American, police circulated copies of the law to registered gun dealers in an effort to "curb a rash of pistol toting offenses."

The initiative came from the state's Department of Public Safety, Austin police administrators told the newspaper.

The district attorneys of Dallas and Tarrant counties at the time, Henry Wade and Monroe Clayton, sought clarification from the state attorney general, asking whether a person could be prosecuted for purchasing a pistol without a certificate of good character. Then-Attorney General Will Wilson answered "no" in 1960.

Wilson referred to the 1958 appeals-court ruling and said the law was invalid.

"The Legislature, despite running afoul of Constitutional requirements concerning the contents of bills, must have believed that purchases by persons of good character were proper while purchases by others were not," Wilson wrote.

An Aug. 27, 1960, article in the Austin American said that then-Austin police Chief R.A. "Bob" Miles pushed back on Wilson's opinion.

"Requiring proof of good character not only helps to keep concealable guns out of the hands of the wrong kind of people, but provides us with detailed information and fingerprints of those who legitimately purchase a gun," the police chief said.

The way it worked in Austin, requests for character certificates were reviewed by police for record checks and to determine whether any other reason existed to deny the certificate.

Miles was chief of police when a gunman, Charles Whitman, killed 14 people and wounded more than 30 from the observation deck of the University of Texas tower in 1966. Whitman, a former Marine, armed himself with a rifle and several pistols. It's unclear whether he had a judge's reference of good character, although by then the courts and attorney general had said the law was unconstitutional.

According to Stewart-Winter, the UT shooting prompted debates in Texas over whether gun laws were too lax. It was also "a source of deep shame" that President John F. Kennedy was killed by a gunman in Dallas in 1963, Stewart-Winter said.

It wasn't until 1967 that Texas legislators passed a bill to arm campus police on state colleges and universities.

When the Texas legislature overhauled the state's penal code in 1973, gone was any mention of the good-character requirement.

©2022 The Dallas Morning News. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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