January 8, 2020

Lawmakers Face Potential Backlash in Stabbings Wake
with Knife Freedom Law that Drew Two Opposing Votes

By Mike Hailey
Capitol Inside Editor

A Republican state lawmaker encountered almost no resistance three years ago when pitching a bill that made it legal to carry knives without restrictions everywhere in Texas including Congress Avenue - the street that dissects the heart of downtown Austin with the Capitol as the crowning landmark.

Governor Greg Abbott signed the knife rights legislation into law a month after State Rep. John Frullo of Lubbock guided it through the House in the 2017 regular session with Democratic State Senator John Whitmire of Houston as the sponsor across the rotunda. Democratic State Rep. Ina Minjarez of San Antonio and Republican State Senator Kelly Hancock of North Richland Hills cast the only opposing votes against the measure that the sponsors packaged as House Bill 1935.

But Frullo might seem like an accidental prophet now in the wake of two downtown stabbings in the Capital City in the past five days including an attack that claimed one victim's life late last week in a melee a block south of the Colorado River on South Congress Avenue. Police were called on Wednesday to the scene of another stabbing that left one victim injured in the hospital after a fight two blocks from Congress Avenue at the intersection of 4th Street and Trinity.

Abbott has seized on the knife attacks in the heart of the state's most liberal city to reinforce his claims that the Austin homeless policy is an invitation to danger as a magnet for unsavory characters. The Republican governor hasn't speculated publicly on the possibility - however - that he and the legislators who endorsed HB 1935 might have contributed to the public safety crisis by making it easier for people to arm themsvles when they don't have access to guns and can't afford them.

Austin Mayor Steve Adler and other Democrats who control local government here have been under fire from Abbott for months for taking a welcome arms approach to a growing homeless population that's been concentrated in the downtown area. City leaders have countered by accusing the governor of demonizing homeless people with misleading stereotypes that don't take into account the fact that the lions share of them have been relatively passive. A significant percentage of the Austin homeless appear to be suffering from mental illness that hasn't culminated in behavior that poses an obvious public safety risk.

The feuding over the homeless ordinance that's limited police intervention in cases involving the homeless has intensified in the fallout from the random killing of a fast-food restaurant employee on Friday at the Freebirds World Burrito on the same street that's anchored by the statehouse at the opposite end. The suspect who the governor identified as homeless before local officials made that public ended up dying from injuries from a fall from a roof on which he'd climbed after eluding police.

Law enforcement authorities indicated that stabbing today between Congress Avenue and Interstate 35 after two men who were apparently homeless got into a fight. But the suspect in last week's fatal attack several blocks away apparently hadn't the knife that became the killing instrument until he darted into the Freebirds franchise and stabbed two people including a kitchen manager who died.

The Republicans who have majorities in the state House and Senate rallied behind the knife bill as a follow-up to a more controversial open carry measure that had been the nation's most lenient gun law at the state level after it cleared the Legislature here in 2015. But Democrats who'd fought the gun rights bill joined arms with the ruling Republicans when all but one of them turned thumbs up on the knife measure.

Democratic State Rep. Joe Moody of El Paso had a key supporting role in the knife legalization measure as an outspoken advocate who'd been chairing the Criminal Jurisprudence Committee that forwarded it to the House floor with a unanimous show of supprt.

Police who'd traveled from around the state to register in opposition in Austin to the open carry gun plan five years ago didn't take an official position on HB 1935 in the next regular session. But HB 1935's supporters might find that the knife measure has become a double-edge sword that could make them vulnerable to potential criticism for a sudden rash of violence that the governor has done his dead-best to blame on Democrats behind the Austin homeless approach.

HB 1935 removed a prohibition on "illegal knives" in public by removing the phrase from a state law that defined weapons that people aren't allowed to carry "intentionally, knowingly, or recklessly" into certain places. The measure kept some restrictions in place on the kinds of knives that can be taken into schools in Texas.


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