Bill would let firefighters, EMTs carry guns on duty

McLennan County’s state representatives have expressed support for a bill that would allow first responders with a state License to Carry a Handgun to carry while responding to emergencies, but local officials have differing views.

Waco Fire Chief Bobby Tatum, said he’s adamantly opposed to firefighters caring guns on duty.

“I would be in favor of leaving guns in the hands of police officers,” Tatum said. “We have a specific mission to save lives and property, and I think carrying a firearm would cross the line in that regard.”

McLennan County doesn’t have a policy in place, but the Waco Fire Department prohibits firefighters from carrying on duty.

The bill would implement a statewide policy requiring local jurisdictions to allow licensed first responders to keep their guns on them during calls. House Bill 982 defines a first responder as anyone who works in fire protection or emergency medical services, including volunteers.

Rep. John Wray, R-Waxahachie, said he filed the bill after a volunteer firefighter brought the issue to his attention.

Some departments and local governments allow first responders to carry while others do not. The bill would bring uniformity, Wray said.

Allowing licensed first responders to keep a handgun with them is especially important in rural areas, he said. Particularly with a volunteer department, first responders may arrive at a scene before police and find a dangerous situation waiting, he said.

“They don’t need to perform a peace officer role, but they are certainly entitled to protect themselves,” Wray said.

Rep. Kyle Kacal, R-College Station, said he believes first responders have a right to personal protection, even in their official capacity as public servants.

“In many communities across our state, and especially rural Texas, emergency responders, including EMS and firefighters, are solely volunteer and may carry firearms in their everyday life,” Kacal said. “The bill, as filed, is intended to relieve the burden of first responders from having to remove and store their firearms before responding to emergencies in firearm-restricted locations. Because timeliness is critical in most emergency situations, I believe it’s necessary to consider any efforts to maximize the effectiveness of emergency response.”

Wray said similar bills were filed in previous sessions and failed to become law. But like so many things, every time the issue is brought to lawmakers’ attention, more people become aware, and the likelihood improves of getting the measure passed, he said.

“I feel positive and reasonably encouraged that we’ll be able to get this bill in front of the governor during this go-round,” Wray said.

Sometimes first responders don’t know a violent threat is at the scene until they arrive, said Jimmy Rogers, a Robinson volunteer firefighter and city council member.

Often when there’s a threat, police officers instruct fire and EMS responders to wait at a different location, Rogers said. Those violent situations often evolve and shift toward the staging area, he said.

Rogers said he supports first responders carrying as long as they are licensed.

“Being licensed to carry while on a call or doing a fire department function is no different than having the need to carry while you’re a private citizen at home,” he said. “Those unfortunate situations can arise at any time, even on fire calls. Even during a fire call there’s sometimes a heightened threat there.”

Sen. Brian Birdwell, R-Granbury, said he supports the concept of the bill but needs to review the legislation in detail before committing. Birdwell said lawmakers also need to consider whether open carry, concealed carry or both would be appropriate for first responders in uniform or on duty.

China Spring volunteer Fire Chief Scott Needler said during his two years as chief he hasn’t really seen a need for first responders to carry a weapon. Needler said the proposal wouldn’t make much of a difference one way or the other. He said if his firefighters notice anything suspicious, they call the sheriff’s office or local state troopers.

Rep. Charles “Doc” Anderson, R-Waco, said first responders should not have to enter areas that may be dangerous without the ability to defend themselves.

Having a handgun license ensures the person carrying is trained and passed a background check, among other requirements, he said.