Rick Jervis - USA TODAY
BEAUMONT, TEXAS - Pastor James McAbee believes the Scriptures can tame temptation and wash away sins.
But he'll tell you that nothing repels true evil like a well-placed, loaded Glock .40-caliber pistol.
McAbee, known around town as the "Pistol-Packing Preacher," keeps his loaded Glock in a holster tucked in his pants at all times, whether making a bank deposit or preaching from the pulpit of the Lighthouse Worship Center, an Assembly of God church where he pastors.
When not preaching, McAbee offers a $50 one-day concealed weapons course to gun enthusiasts. Since the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in December, when a 20-year-old man shot and killed 20 students and six staffers before shooting himself, he's offered the classes for free to teachers.
It's the Texas way, McAbee, 36, says. "We believe an armed society is a peaceful society. This is Texas, and everybody has a gun."
Nearly two months after the massacre in Connecticut, renewed calls for tighter gun controls are rising in the nation's capital and many states, as polls show growing public support for some restrictions.
Yet here in Texas, which has a long-cherished history of independence and an unshakeable pro-gun culture, talk of limits on weapons is met with resolute defiance:
Republican Gov. Rick Perry said last month that the effort by the "political left" and news media to exploit the Connecticut massacre to push for gun-control measures "disgusts me."
State Rep. Jason Villalba, a Republican from Dallas, has proposed putting an armed "marshal" in every public school. Republican state Rep. Steve Toth, who represents an area north of Houston, has vowed to make it a felony to enforce federal gun bans within Texas' borders.
Two Texas school districts have adopted policies allowing teachers and faculty to carry guns on school grounds. Three districts allow guns in schools.
Recent high-profile shootings in the state are unlikely to shift the ground of this debate. Last month, three people were hit by gunfire during an altercation on a community college campus near Houston. Cable news channels swarmed over the story as another potential rampage.
A little more than two weeks ago, a Kaufman County prosecutor was gunned down outside the courthouse where he worked. The shooters are at large.
Two days later, a gunman shot and killed two people, including famed U.S. Navy SEAL sniper Chris Kyle, at a gun range near Fort Worth. Police have arrested and charged Eddie Ray Routh, 25, in that case.
These incidents, though high profile, don't reflect the bigger picture, gun rights advocates say. Despite an abundance of weapons, the state's death rate from firearms - 11 per 100,000 residents - ranked 23rd nationally in 2010, the last year such statistics are available.
Texas' romance with firearms runs nearly 200 years deep, dating back to when it was part of Mexico, says Steve Blake, director of the Firearms Museum of Texas in Brownwood, 130 miles southwest of Fort Worth.
Earliest settlers to Texas arrived around the 1820s from Louisiana and Tennessee carrying muzzle-loading rifles to fend off snakes, wolves and hostile bands of Comanche Indians, Blake says. Guns continued to play a prominent role throughout Texas' history, including its independence from Mexico in 1836 and the Mexican-American War in 1846.
After the Civil War, when most of the South was in ruins, ex-Confederate soldiers - and their guns - poured into the state.
Perhaps colored by that history, some Texans won't accept federal limits on their guns, Blake says. "It's like trying to imagine Southern California without cars," he says. "It's so much a part of our way of life."
Don't let the state's vast stash of guns and the powerful gun lobby fool you, counters Frances Schenkkan, an Austin-based gun-control advocate and board member of States United to Prevent Gun Violence.
Sure, the gun-toting frontier land is rich history and great for storytelling, but reality in the Lone Star State reflects a different world. A younger and more diverse population has for decades been swelling in urban areas - Dallas, Houston and San Antonio - where guns are less popular, Schenkkan says.
Even in Texas, a state that brands itself as "a whole other country," the dynamics of the state gun debate are shifting. In the past two legislative sessions, a proposal to allow guns on college campuses has failed to pass, despite a strong push by pro-gun legislators, Schenkkan says.
"It tells me there's some reluctance and some understanding of the issue," she said. "What people would call the romance of the West and Texas - that's fading."
Gun-crazy? Not so fast
Despite the changing demographics and the fact that most Texans have scant ties to the state's pioneer roots, sheer numbers reflect a place with an enduring affinity for guns.
Texas has more gun dealers - about 8,500 - than any other state, according to statistics kept by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. Thousands of guns bought legally in Texas each year make it across the state's southern border and into the hands of Mexican drug cartels, according to ATF reports.
The state's lax gun laws - no state registration of firearms required, no waiting period, no limits on type or number of guns - make Texas a prolific source of guns for criminals and the ire of national gun-control advocates, says John Rosenthal, co-founder of the Newton, Mass.-based Stop Handgun Violence. "Texas is definitely part of the problem," he says.
Gun rights advocates say the relatively low death-by-gun numbers reflect something else: a responsible gun culture. Most Texas gun owners are familiar with firearms, have hunted with them for much of their lives and use them responsibly, said Steve Hall, executive director of the 37,000-member Texas State Rifle Association. The vast majority of the group's 37,000 members are casual collectors with multiple firearms, he points out.
As Washington debates gun-control measures, local gun stores are doing brisk business as more Texans buy more guns, something not seen in a while, Hall says. "People think (the Obama) administration and Congress will further restrict their rights."
On a recent Saturday afternoon, more than three dozen customers crowded into the Collectors Firearms gun store in Houston, browsing cases of antique pistols and holding up hunting rifles. Customers filled out paperwork and waited in line for the required instant federal background checks.
Chris Vargas, a Houston truck driver, was looking to add to his collection of submachine guns and semiautomatic rifles. He was searching for an AR-15 semiautomatic rifle similar to the one carried by the Sandy Hook shooter. "I have to spend more money faster before they ban them," Vargas says.
Across town, the Houston Gun Collectors Association gun show filled up with visitors in a cavernous hall of the Reliant Center downtown. Outside the hall, two women raffled off an AR-15. Inside, more than 1,000 vendor tables offered an array of weaponry and accessories: Winchester shotguns, 75-round ammo drums, AK-47s, antique Colt pistols and modern M4 rifles.
Most visitors that day were hunters and gun collectors, says Brook Burg, the association's vice president.
Too often, guns make the news for the wrong reasons - massacres and crimes - while rarely mentioned is the bonding that occurs when families go hunting or the responsibility handling a firearm teaches children, Burg says. "When you have that type of parental input, that's not bad at all."
Chris Greenway, 31, of Houston, spent the morning at the gun show with daughter Anna, 4. He's been taking her to gun shows since she was an infant, he says. Most of his collection centers on hunting.
He says he doesn't see a problem with some of the gun-control measures proposed in Washington, such as the one that would limit the sale of high-capacity magazines, or those with 10 bullets or more.
"We don't need high-capacity magazines," he says. "If I have to shoot at something more than once, I'm not doing something right."
Keeping the peace
The political response here to the Sandy Hook school shooting seemed typically Texan.
Villalba, the state representative, says he learned of the shooting shortly after dropping off his 6-year-old daughter at a Dallas kindergarten. Four days later, he began piecing together a proposal to put a trained armed guard in every Texas school.
On the national stage, Villalba's proposal was ridiculed as heartily as it was praised. Back home, fellow lawmakers and constituents were receptive to it, he says.
"Our people are comfortable with firearms," he says. "We don't feel the federal government should tell us what types of guns we can own and what types of guns we can't."
Under Texas law, guns are banned in schools unless the school district gives written approval. Three districts have done so. Others are considering similar policies.
In Beaumont, Pastor McAbee, who has been giving concealed weapons classes for more than a year, says he's reaching out to area teachers so they'll be ready if the local districts allow firearms on campus.
After Sandy Hook, he posted a note on Facebook offering the free classes. On a recent Saturday, he trained 150 teachers; an additional 200 have signed up for his next class in March.
The firearm training doesn't conflict with the church doctrine he lives by, he says.
"I preach peace," McAbee says. "Having a firearm keeps the peace."