By Tori Hittner
It’s a straight shot north on I-35 until you reach exit 343 toward Elm Mott. Hang a right at the corner Dairy Queen and drive half a mile until you see the old white sign. You can’t miss it.
Tucked away on a nondescript side road, the small building doesn’t look like much at first. Your initial reaction of indifference won’t last long.
The sloping parking lot gives way to a single door with a bold print sign reading “Bar Entrance.” A handful of glinting motorcycles rest under the awning, an intimidating concentration of streamlined metal and muscle. Inside, smoky haze drifts around neon signs and simple tables and chairs. Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers blare in the background, filling the room with assertions that they “won’t back down.”
This startling oasis of motorcycles and classic rock is the American Legion Post 121 of Waco. It may seem like an unlikely venue, but it’s home to elementary school programs, ice cream socials and oratorical scholarship contests. It’s also home to some very special people.
The American Legion Unit 121 consists of a diverse group of veterans from the Waco area who provide vital support for each other in life after combat. These men and women aim to make their community a better place and consistently offer their time and services to those in need. Underneath the tough exterior of denim and leather lies a bond of friendship and compassion that not only brings solidarity into their own lives, but joy into the community, as well.
The tough biker personas may be convincing, but they’re not meant to be. It is simply how these veterans cope with the calamities they have seen. In light of the recent tragedies that devastated the nation, it stands to reason that if we are looking for opinions on key issues such as gun control, we need look no further than our very own veterans. They are the ones who have seen firsthand what firearms—and the people wielding them—can do. They’re the ones who fought so that we as Americans could even have this discussion and make new laws in order to enact change. They’re the ones we should turn to when faced with important issues regarding the handling of weapons.
It is no secret that Texas has been a historically pro-Second Amendment state. Texas boasts some of the most lenient gun restrictions in the Union, yet is one of the few remaining states to restrict the open carry of firearms. Unsurprisingly, multiple open carry bills have been proposed in the past decade, but have had little success. The congressional session of 2013 seems likely to push another open carry bill through committee—perhaps all the way to the House floor.
Reps. George Lavender and Chris Paddie co-wrote and sponsor the 2013 bill, dubbed “HB 700.” Essentially, the bill seeks to modify existing Texas law that prohibits the unconcealed carry of a firearm in public. The proposed changes include the words “and unconcealed” after any law pertaining to “concealed” firearms, defining a legal unconcealed firearm as a “loaded or unloaded handgun carried upon the person in a shoulder or belt holster.” Holsters must have at least two points of resistance and be either wholly or partially visible.
Having recently been introduced to the House Committee on Homeland Security and Public Safety, the bill, if pushed through, must be put on the legislative calendar and then reach the floor for a full vote of the House.
Not all are in favor of the bill, however. In light of recent firearm-related national tragedies, many citizens question whether the expansion of gun rights is prudent. Like the state of Texas itself, the local veterans of Unit 121 were divided over the issue of open carry.
Billy Elkins, 64, the commander of Unit 121, would be the first to welcome you into the Post. His easy smile and affable personality could make anyone feel at home. His unwavering convictions would also make him a force to be reckoned with.
Elkins did not hesitate to support the idea of open carry. “The more visible the better. If you’re in a store and a thief walks in and sees a gun, they’re going to think twice before they rob the store.”
Having served 21 years in the Army and Reserves, Elkins finds the proposed bill to be a natural extension of the Second Amendment.
“That’s what we fought for,” Elkins said. “That’s what we went to Vietnam, Korea, World War I, World War II, Desert Storm, Afghanistan, and Iraq for: for our rights, to keep America free.”
Fellow veteran Brent Dodd, 40, heartily agreed. “I fought for my rights. I fought for my kids’ rights. And I don’t like them infringed upon.”
Dodd served in both the Navy and Reserves and raised his sons to hold a healthy “respect” for firearms, teaching the boys proper care and handling. According to Dodd, open carry is not only practical but necessary for protection.
“The law-abiding citizens that actually go and take the courses and are legal to carry are not the ones committing the crimes,” Dodd said. “So it’s actually going to be a protection for them. If you can open carry, just the sight of it—you’d never have to pull it. If they can see it, they’re not going to mess with you. They’re not going to mess with anyone around you.”
Vietnam veteran Harold Shilling echoed the sentiments of his fellow Legionnaires, supporting the idea of open carry in Texas. Shilling claimed that “at 64, I’ve seen a lot.” And seen a lot he has. After two years in the Army, Shilling returned to Waco where he worked for the Texas Department of Transportation. Only a handful of years later, he witnessed another “gruesome” tragedy that remains “embedded” in his memory: the aftermath of the raid upon the Branch Davidian compound. It was traumatic events such as this that shaped Shilling’s opinion regarding open carry.
“You can’t stop a man with a gun with a knife. But if he knows that you have a gun and he has a gun, he’s not as apt,” Shilling said. “The Second Amendment is there for a reason: to protect ourselves. I’ve got to protect my family, too.”
Not all the Legionnaires were so in favor of open carry. Both Chad Williams, 43, and Lee Mitchell, 57, urged caution when debating gun rights. Williams, who quipped he had been a “passer, not a catcher” of bullets as a Navy Seabee, believes that “any gun that has the capacity of over ten rounds needs to be off the market.” Military experience taught him that guns are dangerous tools made even more deadly in the hands of the wrong people.
“There are a lot of people out here who will be willing to shoot you over spilled milk,” Williams said. “We’ll have more murders.”
Mitchell, too, cited human error and unpredictability as reasons open carry may not be the safest option. After 20 years of service in the Army, “I know how people are with their tempers. I could see where it could be a deterrent, but I can also see that it could lead to bad things happening if people can’t control their tempers.”
The veterans at Post 121 may not all have agreed on the overall prudence of the open carry bill, but they seemed to unknowingly find something the public has yet to learn: compromise. Though spoken to separately, the Legionnaires found common ground in several key areas.
Nearly every contacted veteran asserted that our most concentrated efforts for reform should be focused on the people themselves, not their weapons.
“It’s the person, not the gun,” Elkins said. “Guns don’t kill people. People kill people. The guns don’t do it unless you have a person pulling the trigger. They could come and take every gun the honest person has and there are still going to be guns on the street. And they’re going to be with the bad guys.”
Williams and Mitchell, though opposed to open carry, voiced thoughts similar to their post commander.
“We need to increase background checks and try to catch people…before they get the gun,” Mitchell pointed out. “It seems like all of the problems we’ve had with guns have been people that never should have had the guns in the first place. If we would have had the background checks in place that were effective, these may not have happened.”
No matter what the ultimate decision in Texas, fellow Legionnaire Williams believes that the national gun debate will be “a never-ending battle.”
Ana Martinez, 43, knows from personal experience that gun policy changes must be made.
A small arms specialist in the Army during Desert Storm, Martinez believes that “anyone who owns a weapon should have some kind of military background training more than just that for a CHL [concealed handgun license].” Martinez said she understands that there will be those who “fall through the cracks” of any policy, but strongly suggests we try to make a difference by spreading gun safety education among the public.
“It’s a hard question, and I don’t think there’s a right answer,” Martinez said. “I’ve seen good things and bad things. There’s a lot of power in carrying a weapon, but there’s also a lot of responsibility.”