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Texans Battle Over the Carrying Of Concealed Weapons

WHILE showing a Colt AR-15 semiautomatic rifle to a reporter, gun dealer Joe McBride mentions that it is the last of that soon-to-be-illegal model in his inventory. ``I'll take the AR-15,'' says a customer who overhears the dealer. The customer soon walks away with the $985 firearm.

``That's going to happen [more often] now,'' Mr. McBride says. Last week, the United States House of Representatives voted to ban 19 assault weapons, and look-alikes. The ban must survive a House-Senate conference committee, which the National Rifle Association (NRA) hopes will defeat it. The ban on production would begin as soon as President Clinton signs the bill. Sales continue until dealers run out.

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The fight over guns has just begun in Texas. There is a strong move afoot to allow citizens to carry concealed weapons. In March, 3 out of 4 voters in a state Republican primary favored a resolution calling for a referendum on that issue.

DEMOCRATIC Gov. Ann Richards, who is running for re-election, threatened to veto a pro-gun move in both houses of the legislature to put such a referendum on next November's ballot. ``Richards took a lot of heat on that issue,'' campaign spokesman Chuck McDonald says. Her Republican opponent, George W. Bush, son of the former US president, favors allowing citizens to carry concealed weapons in some cases but wants voters to decide the issue, says Bush campaign press secretary Deborah Burstion-Wade.

Both parties identify the gun controversy as one of the top two issues in the race. ``I get more calls on this kind of issue than anything else,'' says state Republican Chairman Fred Meyer. ``We really don't need paramilitary gangs shooting armor-piercing bullets,'' counters Ed Martin, executive director of the state Democratic Party. But candidates who favor gun control suddenly ``become Satan incarnate'' to the gun lobby, he says.

In last week's vote in Washington, all nine Texas Republicans and 13 Democrats opposed the assault weapon ban. Of the eight Democrats, three are lame ducks and four come from major cities. One of them, Chet Edwards, is sensitive about guns because his district was the site of both the Branch Davidian shoot-out and the Luby's massacre, the nation's worst mass murder.

Mr. Meyer says the gun issue tends to divide along urban-rural lines rather than party lines in Texas. Pete Nieto (R) of Uvalde, who co-sponored the state concealed weapons bill that Richards Squashed, says: ``People out here in the rural areas are a lot more tuned in to the legitimate use of weapons.''

Hunting season is the top industry in his district. ``You're touching an economic nerve when you talk about curtailing the right to bear arms,'' he says. But in the city, guns are equated with crime. Police chiefs of the seven largest cities in Texas backed Richards in opposing concealed weapons.

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