R. Alan Thompson, a doctoral student in SHSU's criminal justice department and a policeman, too, polled 327 officers on the concealed handgun law at the San Antonio, Austin and Huntsville police departments, as well as the Travis County Sheriff's Department. The new law lets Texans carry concealed handguns after passing an approved 15-hour course and a background check.
About 71 percent of the survey's respondents said they expect concealed handgun ownership to have only a mild-to-moderate deterrent effect for serious crimes such as car jackings or sexual assaults, while about 20 percent say it will have no deterrent value.
However, about 60 percent of respondents predict citizens packing concealed handguns will have a slight-to-dramatic lessening of their fear of crime.
One sore spot with many officers polled is the issue of training, or rather the lack of it, for concealed handgun licensees. About 84 percent of the officers said 15 hours of training is inadequate for teaching the use of deadly force with handguns. Another 77 percent believed the training inadequate for teaching firearm safety. These figures led Thompson to speculate that " ... the only way police officers would see concealed handgun training as adequate would be if they (the public) trained at the same level and frequency as themselves."
One unsolicited response from an officer taking the survey described the 15- hours training as an "insult" to the law enforcement profession. The officer asked how deadly mistakes by citizens carrying concealed handguns can be avoided since even lawmen with extensive training and background checks occasionally err with dire results.
Kenneth Adams, assistant dean of graduate programs at SHSU's Criminal Justice Center, feels periodic retraining and recertification would be preferable to an increased number of hours in the handgun course. Adams said that unlike driving skills, practiced frequently by motorists after a single training course, handgun owners seldom practice with their weapons, leading to a loss in skill and safety.
As for the screening process meant to prevent former felons, drug abusers and the mentally unstable from getting concealed handgun licenses, the survey shows a majority of officers remain skeptical of its effectiveness. About 90 percent felt it would be slightly difficult-to-not difficult at all for a mentally unstable person or drug abuser to pass the required background check conducted by the Texas Department of Public Safety.
Thompson noted applicants are merely asked whether they're mentally unstable or drug abusers as part of the background check.
"Peace officers are fairly skeptical because people make false reports all the time and don't think twice about lying," Thompson said. "A lot of police officers deal with are drug users or have histories of mental problems. Simply requiring them to say, 'Yeah, I'm sane and I don't use drugs,' doesn't sound adequate."
Larry Hoover, director of the Police Research Center at SHSU, said background checks are notoriously lax and even when rigorously conducted may find little or nothing wrong with a potentially dangerous person.
"I think it's a bad assumption that a person coming up clean on a background check is no threat to an officer," Hoover said.
Adams says the real question is, "Who will be getting concealed handgun permits and what will they do with them?"
He suspects many who previously carried guns illegally will leap at the chance to do so legally under the new law. He thinks another group of people will get guns and permits, only to put them away after lugging several pounds of gun around proves burdensome.
"Also you're seeing signs all over forbidding guns on premises," Adams said, noting that even those with legal concealed handguns must obey the signs.
One of Thompson's findings shows 47 percent of respondents predicting a rise in illegal carrying of weapons because of the new law, as opposed to about 23 percent who predict no increase. Some 29 percent of the officers were unsure of the outcome.
The survey also shows about 56 percent of the officers think their rates of arrest for handgun possession offenses will increase slightly-to-dramatically while about 41 percent expect no change. About 72 percent of the officers predict overall arrest rates for handgun possession offenses will rise as opposed to about 20 percent thinking otherwise.
As may be expected, the survey suggests most officers have greater personal safety concerns regarding the new law. Thompson said many officers spurning bullet- proof vests before will be more likely to don them now. He said officers in general will probably be more defensive in some ways, and more offensive in others.
"I think it will affect their safety tactics," Thompson said. "They'll ask more probing questions and be more tactically conscious."
Hoover said the issue of concealed handguns raises some interesting questions. For example, in a domestic dispute in which one of the disputants has a legal concealed weapon, but hasn't drawn it yet, could an officer legally disarm the disputant? Hoover doesn't know and it's not clear if anyone else does.
While Thompson doesn't think citizens are more likely to be shot by lawmen after Jan. 1, he said it's possible someone reaching for a concealed handgun with the intent of giving it to an officer could provoke a defensive response. In order to avoid these situations Thompson suggests anyone coming in contact with the police should immediately announce he has a weapon.
Another question posed by Thompson showed that while most of the officers dislike concealed handguns among the public, about 85 percent abstained from active lobbying against the proposed law. About 12 percent actively opposed the measure.
When asked how they felt about the proposition that only licensed peace officers should carry concealed handguns, some 50 percent of the lawmen strongly agreed, 27 percent "somewhat strongly agreed" and about 23 percent said it didn't matter to them.
"The law itself was widely opposed in the police community by both police administrators and police associations," Hoover said. "They've reluctantly accepted the law, but it creates additional problematic situations for the police."
Thompson said Texas is among 41 states that allow their citizens to carry concealed handguns.
In 20 states, concealed handgun applicants must demonstrate a need for carrying a weapon. For example, a businessman transporting large amounts of cash might qualify. Another 20 states, Texas among them, allow all non-felon citizens to carry a concealed handgun by permit, without having to demonstrate need for a weapon.
One state, Vermont, allows its citizens to carry concealed weapons without a permit.
Illinois, Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska, New Mexico, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma and Wisconsin don't allow their citizens to carry concealed handguns, Thompson said.