Energy and Environment Reporting for Texas

RRC’s Smitherman: ‘Much Interest’ in Gun Training

Courtesy Barry Smitherman for Texas Facebook page

Texas Railroad Commission Chairman Barry Smitherman as seen on his Facebook page

Barry Smitherman, the chairman of the Texas Railroad Commission which regulates oil and gas drilling, said there has been “much interest” by the commission’s staff since he made his proposal earlier this month to offer training for concealed handgun licenses.

But a union organizer said state employees of other agencies have shown little enthusiasm in arming themselves.

The Right to Protect Yourself

In announcing his initiative, Smitherman cited “recent shooting tragedies around the country”. In response to questions from StateImpact, he elaborated in an email: “At the Railroad Commission, many of our employees—such as our field inspectors—often work alone in remote, desolate areas of the state that can pose dangers. It is my position that Commission employees have the right to protect themselves.”

‘There’s No Telling What Might Happen’

One Texan who agrees is Gary Painter, sheriff of Midland County where oil drilling is booming.

“I think Barry Smitherman is correct in his assumption that his inspectors need to be armed. I don’t know if it would ever occur that they’d need to use a weapon, but there are times they may have to protect themselves,” Painter said.

Dave Fehling / StateImpact

Drilling rig in DeWitt County in South Texas

The sheriff said Railroad Commission inspectors can sometimes encounter resistance from crews on drilling rigs, crews he said that can be “on the edge” because of long hours and the use of drugs to stay sharp in spite of their fatigue.

“If these people feel like they’re threatened, there’s no telling what will happen,” Painter told StateImpact.

The Texas Oil and Gas Association represents drillers but said it would not respond to questions about the sheriff’s characterization of drilling crews or Smitherman’s concerns that inspectors might need to carry handguns.

Violence and Caseworkers

The idea that state employees need to be armed on-the-job isn’t new says Seth Hutchinson, organizing coordinator for the Texas State Employees Union. It represents 12,000 employees at state universities and hospitals and at agencies including Family and Protective Services, the Attorney General’s office, and at the Texas Board of Pardons and Parole.

In recent years, Hutchinson said there have been incidents of caseworkers being threatened but none that he says had members clamoring for firepower.

“The instances have been very isolated and the reaction has not been to start arming state employees,” Hutchinson told StateImpact.

Dave Fehling / StateImpact

Caseworkers from the state's Parole office can carry guns if they pass rigorous certification

But years ago, a pair of attacks highlighted the danger faced by employees of one agency in particular, the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles.

“The last instance we heard about it was in the 1990s; there was a spate of violence against parole officers doing their work,” said Hutchinson about the murder of a Dallas County probation officer and rape of a state parole officer in Beaumont.

Hutchinson said those attacks led to calls to allow parole officers to have guns if they chose to. According to Texas Department of Criminal Justice, of the 1,500 parole officers eligible, only about 254 currently have opted to carry firearms.

To be certified, the officers do not apply for the Texas Concealed Handgun License as proposed at the Railroad Commission.  Instead, they have to pass a psychological exam, then complete a course and demonstrate their shooting ability as part of a program run by the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement Officers. And they have to re-qualify annually.


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