AUSTIN, Texas — In 1995, four months into his first term as governor, George W. Bush signed a bill ending a 125-year ban on concealed handguns in Texas. The new law, he vowed, would make the state "a safer place," and he promised Texans that license applicants would undergo rigorous background checks.
But since the law took effect, the state has licensed hundreds of people with prior criminal convictions--including rape and armed robbery--and histories of violence, psychological disorders and drug or alcohol problems, a Times investigation has found.
James W. Washington got a license to carry a concealed weapon despite having done prison time in Texas for armed robbery. So did Terry Ross Gist, who left a trail of threats and violence in court records from North Carolina to California. A license also went to an elderly Dallas man with Alzheimer's disease.
Still others committed crimes, ranging from double murder to drunk driving, after they were licensed. A frustrated commuter, Paul W. Lueders, shot and severely wounded a Houston bus driver. Audi Phong Nguyen ran with a Houston home invasion ring. Diane Brown James helped her husband kidnap a San Antonio woman to be their sex slave.
About 215,000 Texans are currently licensed to carry concealed weapons. The state concedes that more than 400 were licensed despite prior convictions, and more than 3,000 other licensees have since been arrested.
However, the state never releases the names of individual problem licensees or any details of their crimes. The Times identified more than 200 of those people and examined their cases for the first time.
Johnny Sutton, criminal justice policy advisor to Bush, defended the law by arguing the number of bad licensees is relatively small. He said that the program overall has been a "smashing success."
"There will always be nightmare cases," Sutton said in an interview. "Somebody will always get through that we wish wouldn't, but not that many slip by. When they do, they are caught and [the licenses] revoked. And if they commit a crime, we prosecute them hard."
Campaign aide Dan Bartlett called the program "a good system . . . that we will continue to improve." He said that concealed gun licensees are "much more law-abiding than the average citizen."
Former State Sen. Jerry Patterson, who helped get the law enacted, said he knows of seven instances of license holders stopping crimes. He cited the case of Robert James Eichelberg.
In 1997 at a Houston intersection, Eichelberg was confronted by an armed carjacker at his passenger window. Eichelberg said he "drew a gun that I carry in my truck and I fired." After exchanging shots, the would-be robber fell seriously wounded.
"That's the only reason I'm alive today," Eichelberg said later.
The Texas screening and license enforcement process is closed to public scrutiny and, by law, exempt from open record statutes. The state Department of Public Safety provides only lists with no names of those license holders subject to disciplinary action. Consequently, only a handful of licensees had previously been identified and publicly linked to crimes.
However, the Times investigation traced many of the most serious law violators. It relied on interviews, police reports, court records and other public documents, as well as computer-assisted analyses of state and national databases.
The investigation also found that:
* Because Texas authorities only have 60 days to conduct background checks, they routinely issued licenses before the process was completed. So far, retroactive revocation actions have been launched against the more than 400 who were licensed before out-of-state crime records caught up with Texas officials.
* Background checks do not routinely include interviews with the applicant or with family and friends. State law requires only review of "local official records" and criminal history records.
Applicants often don't want neighbors knowing they applied for the permit. "If there are no clues, no reasons to suspect a problem, then we don't go knocking on doors," said state police Maj. Lee Smith, whose troopers conduct the local checks.
* Troopers do not routinely investigate an applicant's mental or medical history, beyond a search of local public records, unless suspicious information is found. Doctors and hospitals, concerned about patient privacy, also are reluctant to provide such information. "Sometimes we get complete cooperation; sometimes not," Maj. Smith said.
But David Gavin, assistant chief of administration for the concealed handgun authority at the Texas Department of Public Safety, said: "We feel we're effectively using the resources we have available."
Gavin acknowledged that concealed gun background checks are not as thorough as, for example, those for applicants seeking state trooper jobs. He said such inquiries would be considerably more costly and time-consuming if required.