AUSTIN — Texas legislators can't help themselves. Even before their upcoming session hits its stride, they will do something to get national attention, the kind that makes TV hosts snicker and roll their eyes.
A surefire attention-getter this session will be an anticipated bill to let Texans openly pack pistols on their hips, in their belts or elsewhere in public view as they go about their business.
Although many other states apparently already allow the practice, the "cowboy" image of holstered Texans strolling down Main Street or through the mall, arms dangling at their sides and wary eyes on the lookout for trouble, is an easy script for late-night satire.
Remember Matt Dillon, the quick-draw TV marshal?
The legislation is being promoted by OpenCarry.org, a national pro-gun group that says it has collected about 50,000 Texas signatures in a campaign that also has included some radio ads across the state.
Ian McCarthy of Austin, an online marketing entrepreneur who heads the online petition drive, said 44 states already have "open carry" laws. He expects the Texas bill to be sponsored by Rep. Debbie Riddle, R-Tomball.
Riddle wasn't available for comment, but the bill would fit her legislative record. Two years ago, she co-sponsored the so-called "Castle Doctrine" law making it easier (legally) for Texans to use firearms to defend themselves against intruders in their homes.
More than 288,000 Texas adults have been licensed under a 1995 law that allows them to carry handguns after completing a firearms safety course. But they have to keep the weapons concealed, and there are restrictions on where they can take them.
Another major gun bill expected to be debated by lawmakers this year would loosen the restrictions to allow people with handgun licenses to carry their pistols on college campuses.
Interest in removing the prohibition on carrying guns on campus was sparked by the shooting deaths of 32 students at Virginia Tech University in 2007. Advocates for the change argue that students who are 21 or older and have handgun licenses should have the opportunity to arm themselves against similar attacks.
Gov. Rick Perry supports, at least in concept, both the open carry and the campus gun proposals but is awaiting details, spokesman Mark Miner said.
Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson, who as a state senator sponsored the concealed handgun law in 1995, said he also supports the two proposals.
"Is an openly carried gun more dangerous than a concealed one? I don't think so," Patterson said.
"Whether it's a shopping mall, a college campus or just on the street, if a person is 21 and licensed (to carry a firearm), what difference does it make?" he asked.
The fight, however, will be loud and emotional.
Bruce Elfant, a Travis County constable and gun-control advocate, is worried about both proposals, especially the proposal to allow guns on college campuses, which he believes would be dangerous public policy.
"The circus is coming to town, and it's always interesting," he said.