Gun Law in Texas

This newspaper article is used in the questions and learning activities that follow.

  • Aficionados of Hollywood Westerns know all about the legal code that says “shoot first, ask questions later”. But now, Republican legislators in Texas – spiritual home of the six-shooter and a John Wayne-style frontier spirit – want to enshrine the principle into law.
  • Sponsors of a new bill in the state legislature call it the Castle Doctrine – the idea that anyone invading your home or threatening your safety deserves everything they have coming to them. Critics are already calling it the “shoot thy neighbour” law and questioning whether Texas, of all places, really needs to give its citizens further encouragement to take matters of crime and punishment into their own hands.
  • “I believe Texans who are attacked in their homes, their businesses, their vehicles or anywhere else have a right to defend themselves from attack without fear of being prosecuted and face possible civil suits alleging wrongful injury or death,” Texas Senator Jeff Wentworth of San Antonio – home to The Alamo – said recently in support of the bill.
  • “You’ve got to assume a criminal’s not there to buy girl scout cookies; you could be harmed,” the bill’s other sponsor, Texas Representative Joe Driver told The Los Angeles Times. “You should be able to meet force with force without getting in trouble.”
  • In theory, Texas law obliges citizens under attack to consider a retreat before opening fire. In practice, prosecutors and legal experts find it hard to recall a case where a citizen shooting in self-defence got into trouble for doing so.
  • “I’ve lived in Texas 30-plus years and I’d be astounded to hear of a Texas jury that convicted someone who blasted a guy who was in his house,” said Professor Jerry Dowling of Sam Houston State University.
  • This is a state where businesses and home owners have signs that read “We don’t call 911” [the US emergency phone number] next to a large picture of a rifle. A few years ago, when ranch owners along the Rio Grande became upset at the number of Mexican immigrants on their land, they started shooting at them, and won the overwhelming support of their neighbours, even as they created a major international incident.
  • Still, the bill shows every sign of being passed into law. In the State Senate, 27 of the 31 members have signed on as co-sponsors. In the House, two-thirds of the 150 members have indicated their support for it.
  • The inspiration for the legislation comes less from fears for public safety than it does from pressure from the National Rifle Association, the powerful US gun lobby. Over the past two years, the NRA has inspired similar shoot-first laws in 15 other states, including Florida where legislators are now having serious second thoughts after the killing of a nine-year-old girl who was an innocent bystander caught in a shoot-out in a gang-ridden neighbourhood of Miami. The Florida law theoretically offers immunity to both sides in the shoot-out on the grounds that they were firing in self-defence.
  • Texas liberals – a small but noisy breed – have wasted no time making merciless fun of their state representatives, not least because one of the buildings where the Castle Doctrine would apply is the state Capitol. That, wrote an alternative publication in Austin called In The Pink, “could prove challenging for lobbyists”.
  • Advocates of gun-control, meanwhile, are worried the new law will do nothing to protect genuine victims of crime. “The current laws won’t throw someone into jail for legitimate self-defence,” said Zach Ragbourn, chair of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. “Monkeying with the law can be dangerous. It could lead to gun fights and the death of innocent people”.

(Adapted from a newspaper article by Andrew Gumbel, 19 February 2007.)

Activity 1 – Before reading the passage:

  1. Think about the gun laws in your country. If possible, discuss with a partner and compare and contrast.
  2. What are your views on gun control? Should everyone be allowed to carry a gun?
  3. What do you know about gun control in Britain and America?
  4. Find out what this expression means – “a man’s home is his castle”.
  5. The title of this passage is “Gun-toting Texans aim for ‘shoot thy neighbour’ law”. What do you think the article is about?

Activity 2 – Scan the text and find the significance of these phrases and figures:

  • Castle doctrine
  • 30-years plus
  • 911
  • 27 of 31
  • NRA
  • Texas liberals
  • Zach Ragbourn

Activity 3 – Note these keyword (use a dictionary if necessary).

  • aficionados
  • enshrine
  • civil suit
  • astounded
  • inspiration
  • lobby
  • theoretically
  • immunity
  • advocates
  • legitimate

Activity 4 – Complete the sentences below using the keywords above:

  1. A …… is a non-criminal charge brought by one person against another.
  2. In terms of law, an action is …… if the person taking that action is doing so within the law and in good faith, believing that (s)he is doing the right thing.
  3. A person who is an …… is someone who is very knowledgeable about a particular subject, a sport, a specific musical interest, food, drink and so on. They may not be professionally trained in this area but they will be well informed.
  4. …… are people who push hard for a particular course of action or law in life, politics, religion, law and so on
  5. 5. If you are …… about something, you are very, very surprised.
  6. You will often find that writers find their …… from their own lives and from the lives of people around them.
  7. If we say that something is …… possible, we mean that it can happen but it may never have been seen to happen. It may be possible for all the snow at both poles to melt but it has never yet happened.
  8. If someone has …… it means that they cannot be punished or that they are protected in some way or other by the law.
  9. If a group seeks to make their beliefs the foundation of a law or of several laws, then we saw that they want to …… their beliefs in law.
  10. A …… is a group who seek to influence government policy. Some of them spend many millions of dollars every year trying to influence government policy. As some of them are businesses, many people believe this is wrong.

Activity 5 – Read the passage silently.

Activity 6 – Answer these questions based on the article

  1. Who wants to change the gun laws in Texas?
  2. What is meant by the Castle Doctrine?
  3. Have you heard of the Alamo ? What do you know about it?
  4. What does Texas law currently require people to do when someone breaks into their house?
  5. Have people in Texas been punished for shooting people in their house?
  6. What warning signs do some people put up outside houses/businesses?
  7. What organisation has been pushing for changes in the gun laws?
  8. Who are having second thoughts and why?
  9. What do liberals in Texas feel about this law?
  10. Give two reasons why some people are against this change to the law?

Activity 7 – Explain the meaning of these words and expressions

  • spiritual home
  • frontier spirit
  • co-sponsors
  • merciless fun
  • overwhelming support
  • an innocent bystander
  • alternative publication

Activity 8 – Explain the meaning of these expressions in your own words.

  • Anyone invading your home or threatening your safety deserves everything they have coming to them.
  • You’ve got to assume a criminal’s not there to buy girl-scout cookies.
  • Monkeying with the law …

Activity 9 – Expressions

Here are some expressions that were used in the passage:

Link items in the boxes appropriately to make correct sentences.

You’ve got to assumeYou should be able toI’d be astounded to hear ofthat people are honest on the whole.a company like Microsoft collapsing.reach the coast before dark.that the world is not going to end tomorrow.someone swimming 100m in less than 9 seconds.pass the Advanced Level exam before next year.

Activity 10 – Make up sentences of your own using these expressions:

  • You’ve got to assume ……
  • You should be able to ……
  • I’d be astounded to hear of ……
  • … shows every sign of being ……

Activity 11 – Role-play

If possible work with a partner and do role-play. Argue your case for or against changing the gun laws in Texas, America as a whole or some other part of the world.