How the Gun-Toting Half Lives

Life under open carry with Michael Cargill

Michael Cargill at his store, Central Texas Gun Works (Photo by John Anderson)

Open carry went into effect in Texas on January 1. To celebrate the victory in their crusade to expand gun rights in the state, activist group Open Carry Texas rallied at the Capitol before marching down Congress. In the middle of the whole thing, half the group became distracted by a welcoming Subway sandwich shop and split off.

Despite the sandwich detour, there was a very real buzz in the air (see "Open Carry Proponents Run Victory Lap," Jan. 3). OCT clearly felt like they'd won something. Veronica Reynaga, wife of OCT Houston administrator Miguel Reynaga, told me the next battle on the horizon would be constitutional carry, where no one would need a permit to carry a handgun.

Jason Sabo watched from the other side as open carry and campus carry made their way through the Legislature last session. The lobbying firm he founded, Frontera Strategy, may only represent nonprofits and foundations, but Sabo has seen firsthand how the powerful gun lobby does business. Unlicensed carry, as he prefers to call constitutional carry, was the goal of gun rights advocates from the start of last session. Establishment Repub­lic­ans couldn't let a full-blown constitutional carry bill go through; instead open carry – a compromise in the eyes of gun rights activists – became law.

"So the elected officials are getting it both ways," said Sabo. "They're having some modicum of safety, but they're still getting to say they gave the NRA what it wanted.

"The thing that amazed me about working gun issues last session, which I hadn't really understood before, is every gun bill is a vendor bill, shrouded in the containment of freedom," he continued. "And once you really start to strip back the layers, and look at the real motivations behind each of these pieces of legislation: It's all about selling guns. Or selling some gun accessory. Or some training requirement."

Agree to Disagree

Michael Cargill and I first spoke last summer when I called to ask him about District 6 City Council Member Don Zimmerman's tendency to equate gay marriage with pedophilia.

Cargill, a serial candidate, Central Texas Gun Works owner, and gun rights radio personality, had hosted the embattled council member on his AM radio program Come and Talk It to give Zimmerman a chance to defend himself after comparing gay marriage to pedophilia in the wake of the Supreme Court's ruling on marriage equality (see "Zimmerman Not Celebrating Marriage Equality," July 3, 2015). Zimmer­man had responded to a commenter on Facebook with the following: "Replace [gay with] pedophile, then explain how you can justify denying marriage happiness to a couple in love based on age discrimination. In fact there is no such thing as 'pedophilia,' only 'intergenerational love.'"

I wanted to ask Cargill, who's both openly gay and a friend of Zimmerman, why he would extend that courtesy. "My objective when I interview anyone is to get their perspective," he said. "I'm not there to bash them or anything like that."

But he wouldn't let Zimmerman completely off the hook: "I've been in a same-sex relationship with my partner since 1998," Cargill said. "I wanted [Zimmerman's] take on what he actually wrote, so he could explain more in detail, rather than a little Facebook or Twitter posting, or something like that. So I wanted to see where he was coming from, and kind of explain himself. We're friends, and I'm still going to remain friends with him. We're just going to disagree on this topic."

A Bruising Style

Cargill's always willing to listen. But that doesn't mean you're going to change his opinion. He responded to businesses opting out of open carry in January with a flat: "We don't care ... because, you know what? If they don't want us to openly carry our handguns, then that's fine; we're going to conceal carry our handguns."

Those who agree with him on most gun issues will find he isn't any more flexible when he genuinely disagrees with them on a subject. Constitutional carry, for instance, is a sticking point between him and some gun rights advocates. "I'll get stuff from people who get upset with me because I don't help them push constitutional carry," he said. "'You're not helping us with constitutional carry.' You know what? I think some of you guys need a background check. Some of you people are crazy."

Cargill's students wait for their turn at the range (Photo by Nina Hernandez)

However, gun safety groups that want him to work with them on universal background checks will not find a friend, either. "I'm like, 'Mmmm, no. I know exactly what type of goal you're trying to reach, and I'm not going to help you with that goal. So, no, I totally disagree with everything you stand for, and, no, I cannot help you one bit.'"

Covering a Precinct 2 Constable race back in 2012, the Chronicle reflected on Cargill's lack of "policing experience [and] bruising campaign style." Whenever he runs for office – his most recent run was for District 1 City Council Member in 2014 – his eclectic platform and caustic followers doom him. Back in 2012 it was supporters hurling "appalling and potentially libelous accusations" at his opponent. Occurrences like that, in addition to his rigid stance on gun rights, make him an automatic fringe candidate in Travis County. Each time he's lost, Cargill returns to his shop to sell guns and teach licensing courses.

Cargill's brashness serves him well in his day job. The shop is as busy as it has ever been, thanks to the new laws. CenTex set sales records in December in the lead-up to open carry going into effect. Cargill said the demand was higher than in the aftermath of the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newtown, Conn., when people were stocking up on guns, scared that there might finally be a national consensus for gun control.

"And then classes? We did so many classes during December," he remembered.

The New Regime

Like many other people in town, I became curious about taking a handgun class because of the new laws. Gun rights advocates often bring up the training requirement as evidence there's no reason to fear open carry. And that's how someone more interested in video game munitions ended up spending an entire day in a gun store.

Open carry changed the structure of the classes Cargill holds. No longer is it the 10-15 hour Concealed Handgun License (CHL) course. It's been trimmed to a 4-6 hour License to Carry a Handgun course, although Cargill admits he hasn't actually yet finished a class within that timetable.

"Now that we've had the new laws, probably since September of last year, I've stopped doing my normal introduction that I do, because there's not enough time," he said. "I go straight into, OK, here's what you need to know as far as, 'Can I get a license?' Now, let's get into the laws. There's no time for me to talk to people about their situational awareness as I used to."

The $65 course isn't much different than your average Defensive Driving or TABC certification. Thirty or so other people you would normally never hang out with in a cramped classroom setting. You start out stiff and awkward, but by the end of it you're all so stir-crazy everyone seems hilarious. Cargill fans the flames with his booming re-enactments and tricky questions.

Demographics for this type of class are probably more diverse than you might think, but Cargill said students do skew conservative. When I was there, one man wanted to know if "snotty" kids would keep him from open carrying at the swimming pool. A young guy with healing wounds complained about losing a handgun to the Austin Police Department after he'd been robbed and assaulted. Another unintentionally drew cackles with a hypothetical about citizen's arrest. (Yes, it does make you think of that episode from The Andy Griffith Show.)

Cargill doesn't let any of that faze him. If that grumpy old man hears a class of kids entering the swimming pool, he'd better put his gun back in his car. The assault victim is never going to see that gun again. And the citizen's arrest? Let's move along.

Not much frazzles a 12-year Army veteran. Especially one that was a drill instructor.

Except the thought of one of his students being involved in a wrongful shooting. It's one point he hammers on in class, referencing the only student he's ever had who was convicted for using a gun. "To be honest with you, whenever something pops up in the news, I'm always searching names," he told me later. "Oh, God, please don't let that be one of my students."

A Marketing Stunt

A successful target (Photo by Nina Hernandez)

Occasionally, some of the penchant for the shock factor he undoubtedly picked up from his time in the military ruffles community feathers. As was the case when D1 Council Member Ora Houston invited the gunmaster to a town hall in January to speak about the new gun laws.

"If any community needs to hear anything about guns and gun laws, it should be the black community," he said.

But Cargill didn't go to the town hall with words alone. He came carrying a disassembled AR-15 in a black bag, which he used to illustrate the difference between handguns and long guns in relation to the new 30.06 and 30.07 signs businesses use to bar concealed or open carry. Those signs refer to handguns – not long guns (rifles, shotguns, etc.).

It was also, frankly, a bit of a marketing stunt.

Cargill explained: "To prove to you that you need to come to class: 'Hey, officer, can you give me that black bag right there?' Officer turned around and grabbed my black bag. I put it on the table. Inside my black bag, I had an AR-15 taken apart in two pieces. So I opened up the black bag, I took out the AR-15 in two different pieces. And it clips together in just two clips. So once you put it together, two clips, boom, AR-15.

"And I said, 'Right here, in this church, if they had a 30.06 sign posted on the door and a 30.07 sign, can I have this AR-15 in this church?' And they thought, 'No.' No, the 30.06 and 30.07 is for the handgun, not the long gun. This AR-15 is legal inside this church."

The gun dealer drew some criticism behind the scenes, a revelation that delights him. "Oh man, they said something about that? That's awesome," he said.

He said he was trying to get across in 15 minutes what currently takes six hours in one of his courses. It's the same reason he takes a news crew with him to open carry on Capital Metro buses. So that you learn, in a few minutes, that there's no law prohibiting carrying a handgun on a public bus. And ignoring a 30.07 sign and continuing to open carry is a Class C misdemeanor and a $200 fine that Cargill called a "traffic ticket." But if you tell someone to remove a gun from private property and they refuse, the punishment rises to a Class A. "What I tried to convey to them is, their voice is a lot more powerful than any sign," he said. "Because if they do it, and [a license holder] refuse[s] to leave, it's trespassing."

And just so we're clear: "No, I do not regret it. I would do it again. I'll do it every time. I believe in carrying in church."

Emergency Leave

In his classes at the shop, Cargill tells his students about his grandmother's rape more than 25 years ago. He was an 18-year-old Army recruit when he had to take emergency leave and return home to Fort Lauderdale, Fla., to visit her in the hospital. His grandmother, who was blind in one eye, had been accosted at a bus stop. She used public transportation daily.

That story silences all 40 students.

"My grandmother, when she got on the bus, she would say, 'Good morning, everyone!' And when she got off the bus to leave, 'God bless you. Everyone have a good day!'

The sweetest lady you ever want to come across in your life."

At that time, the only experience Cargill had with guns was what he'd learned in the military. But he said the thought of him or another family member being a victim again made him expand his knowledge. And the anger he felt at being treated badly at a gun store around that time motivated him to one day open his own shop, which he did in 2006 with CenTex.

"I felt uncomfortable talking to the people at the counter. I thought they were racist. They were rude. I didn't feel comfortable dealing with them," he remembered. "I thought, 'This is awful.' So what do we do? You know what, learn how to do it myself. Learn how to teach this stuff. And get a gun store so I can teach this myself. So that's what I did."

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Michael Cargill, Central Texas Gun Works, open carry, Ora Houston, Sandy Hook, Don Zimmerman

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