By: Mark Diaz
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How Severe Is The Punishment For Weapons Charges in Texas?
Texas has long had a reputation as a state friendly towards the right to bear arms. But that does not mean you cannot face serious legal charges in connection with carrying–or using–certain weapons. On the contrary, Texas has some very strict weapons laws that need to be understood and followed. And if you are caught in possession of a weapon illegally, you may be facing some serious jail time.
How Do Texas Gun Licensing Laws Work?
First, let’s start with how you can legally carry a firearm. Texas is what we call a “shall-issue” jurisdiction when it comes to handgun licensing. This means that if a person meets certain legal criteria, the Texas Department of Public Safety must issue that person a license to carry a handgun. Law enforcement thus has no discretion in the matter: Either a person qualifies for a gun license or they do not.
So, what are the eligibility criteria? Section 411 of the Texas Government Code states a person qualifies for a license to carry if they:
- are at least 21 years old, unless you are a member or veteran of the armed forces, in which case you may be eligible for a license at 18
- have been a legal resident of Texas for at least 6 months before they applied for a license
- does not have a felony conviction on their record
- have not been convicted of a Class A or B misdemeanor within the past 5 years
- are not currently charged with, or under indictment for, a felony or a Class A or B misdemeanor
- are not currently a fugitive from justice facing a Class A or B misdemeanor charge
- are not addicted to drugs or alcohol
- does not have a diagnosed psychiatric disorder that prevents them from “exercising sound judgment” when it comes to using or storing a handgun
- meet all federal and state requirements for purchasing a handgun
- have not been found “delinquent” when it comes to making tax, child support, or student loan payments
- are not currently subject to a restraining order affecting a spouse or other individual
Up until 2015, the Department of Public Safety only issued “concealed carry” handgun licenses. But as of 2016, Texas is now an “open carry” jurisdiction. This means you may carry a handgun concealed or openly, but you still need a license either way. And aside from meeting the eligibility requirements specified above, you also need to complete a state-approved instruction course before you can receive a License to Carry (LTC).
What Are Restricted Areas For Guns In Texas?
Even with an LTC, you can still be charged with a federal or state weapons charge if you carry a handgun into certain restricted areas. Some of the more common restrictions include:
- You typically may not carry a handgun into any building or property owned by the United States federal government, as its restrictions on firearms preempt Texas law.
- Similarly, you normally cannot carry a firearm into a state or municipal court building, unless you are an employee or officer of the court.
- You can be charged with a felony if you carry a handgun into any building or location when used as a polling place for an election; this includes buildings that would otherwise allow open carry of firearms during non-election times.
- You can be charged with a felony if you carry a firearm onto the premises of any school or educational institution unless the institution itself provides written authorization or the governing body has a rule permitting open carry. Indeed, some Texas schools have such policies expressly permitting their employees to carry licensed handguns.
- You can be charged with a Class A misdemeanor for carrying a handgun into a building or facility that is actively hosting a sporting event; there is an exception for participants in a sporting event who need such weapons, such as someone in a shooting competition.
- You cannot carry firearms into a jail, prison, or any other correctional facility, including any location within 1,000 feet of where a legal execution is being performed.
Trespass and Handguns
In general, you may possess and carry a licensed handgun onto any private property when not expressly forbidden by law. However, you may still be charged with “trespass” if the property owner notifies you they do not allow weapons on their property. If a residential or commercial property owner posts a sign barring anyone from carrying a concealed weapon on the premises, a failure to heed such notice is a Class C misdemeanor.
But if you enter the property with your gun and are personally told that concealed weapons are not permitted, and you subsequently fail to leave, then you can be charged with a Class A misdemeanor. But if you “promptly depart” after receiving oral notice of the owner’s no-firearms policy, you cannot be convicted of trespass.
Similar rules apply to private property restrictions on the open carry of weapons, although the signage requirements differ somewhat.
What Are Illegal Weapons In Texas?
Up to this point, we have only addressed handguns. But there are many other types of weapons that a person may possess or use. And many of these weapons are illegal. Here are just some of the illegal weapons specifically identified in the Texas Penal Code:
- Explosives, machine guns, and firearms, unless they are registered with the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosive, or they are classified as historical relics (i.e., they were manufactured before 1899)
- Armor-piercing bullets
- Chemical dispensing devices
- Zip guns
- Tire deflation devices
- Firearms silencers, unless it complies with federal law or is classified as a historical relic;
- any “improvised” explosive device, i.e., a homemade bomb constructed using nonmilitary components
- a rifle with a barrel length of fewer than 16 inches
- a shotgun with a barrel length of fewer than 17 inches
- an altered shotgun or rifle with an overall length of 26 inches
- a “hoax bomb,” i.e., a device that “reasonably appears” to be a bomb or designed to convince law enforcement that it is a bomb
What Are Punishment Levels For Weapons Charges?
The specific facts surrounding a weapons charge can make a big difference in how your case is prosecuted. For example, let’s say you carry an unlicensed handgun into a store. You can be charged with a Class A misdemeanor. But if you carry that same weapon into a restaurant that has a liquor license, then you are facing a third-degree felony charge.
So, what does that mean in practical terms? Well, Texas divides its Penal Code into felonies and misdemeanors. Misdemeanors are those offenses punishable by less than 1 year in jail, while felonies typically carry longer sentences in prison. In the above hypothetical example, a third-degree felony carries a mandatory minimum sentence of 2 years in prison and a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison. A Class A misdemeanor, in contrast, only carries the possibility of up to 1 year in jail.
In addition to any prison time, you also may have to pay a fine if you are convicted of a weapons charge. The amount of the fine will vary based on the offense level. For a Class A misdemeanor, the maximum allowable fine is $4,000. For a felony, it is up to $10,000.
What Are The Collateral Consequences of a Weapons Conviction?
Aside from serving a prison term and paying a fine, a conviction on any weapons charge can have significant consequences for you moving forward. For one thing, you will now have a criminal record. That can affect everything from finding a job to renting an apartment.
And ironically, if you are convicted of a Class B misdemeanor weapons charge or higher, that can make you ineligible to own a legal handgun. As noted above, a misdemeanor conviction bars you from obtaining a license to carry in Texas for 5 years.
In fact, even a convicted felon may keep a gun at home after 5 years. However, a felon cannot legally possess such weapons out in public ever. In addition, even if the State of Texas has no problem with a person previously convicted of a crime from having a gun at home, it may still violate federal law, which is much stricter on this subject.
In sum, you do not want any type of weapons-related conviction on your record. And in many cases, it is possible to beat a weapons charge. As you can see, the laws and regulations governing weapons are quite complex. And in many cases, police and prosecutors make key mistakes that can help a defendant. For instance, an allegedly illegal weapon may have been recovered during a search that was itself illegal or violated the suspect’s constitutional rights.
A qualified Galveston criminal defense attorney can review your weapons charge and help you formulate an appropriate legal strategy. Contact attorney Mark Diaz today at (409) 515-6170 to schedule a consultation.