AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — He's famous for never leaving home without a .22-caliber Magnum tucked in his boot. But if things ever really got dicey, Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson says his first move would actually be for the lesser-known .380 he keeps in his waistband.
"It's like a smoke detector: You don't turn it on just for when you think you might get a fire," Patterson said during an interview with The Associated Press, showing off the pistols he carries everywhere. "It's like putting your billfold in your pocket. You either carry or you don't."
Patterson is hoping his penchant for packing heat can bolster him in the crowded, four-way Republican primary for Texas lieutenant governor. He's one of three top candidates trying to prove he's more conservative than incumbent David Dewhurst, even suggesting in a slightly joking manner that rather than Texas seceding, the U.S. would be better off if four liberal states — California, New York, Massachusetts and Connecticut — were kicked out of the union.
"I'm in favor of expulsion," he said. "New York, California, and there's some good people in New York and California, but their legislatures aren't representing them."
Patterson is known for his quick wit — but not everyone finds him funny. While serving in the state Senate in 1995, he authored a concealed handgun law to allow Texans to take their firearms more places than nearly anywhere else in America. When a colleague proposed an amendment barring weapons in the Capitol in case someone wanted to shoot at lawmakers, Patterson responded: "I don't know about you, but I'm going to return fire."
Though he's been land commissioner since 2003, the gun law remains his signature achievement.
"There's 580,000 concealed handgun license-holders in Texas," said Patterson, a retired, 24-year U.S. Marine Corps veteran. "I can win this race on that issue alone."
He may have to. A millionaire energy mogul, Dewhurst has been lieutenant governor since 2003. Looking to unseat him with Patterson are Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples and state Sen. Dan Patrick, a Houston radio talk show host who founded the state Legislature's Tea Party Caucus.
Dewhurst was the favorite to succeed the retiring Kay Bailey Hutchison during last year's Republican U.S. Senate primary, but was upset by then little-known former Texas Solicitor General Ted Cruz, who convinced conservative grass-roots activists that Dewhurst was too moderate.
Now Patterson, Staples and Patrick are all attempting to energize the far right against Dewhurst. Patterson has his trademark pistols, Staples emphasizes his work protecting ranchers on the Texas-Mexico border from drug smugglers, while Patrick has heralded his expansion of charter schools statewide as head of the Senate Education Committee.
"In a crowded field, you've got to stand apart," said Matthew Eshbaugh-Soha, a political science professor at the University of North Texas. But that only works to a point — especially since Patterson acknowledges all of his opponents are staunch Second Amendment defenders too.
The lieutenant governor oversees the flow of legislation in the state Senate. By contrast, Patterson said the office he's giving up is so low-profile that Texans often tell him they can't vote for him because they don't live in his district — even though he represents the entire state.
Land commissioner is now best known as the post being sought by George P. Bush, the latest in his political-dynasty family to have his name appear on a Texas ballot.
Patterson has sparked outcry in some circles by complaining that federal endangered species laws are more about restricting energy companies than protecting the planet.
"Why is it that we created a law that imposes a burden to protect every single species?" he asked. "I'm not suggesting that we just go wanton, without any regard for animals and plants and the environment. But it gets to the point of absurdity."
The frenzy to sway conservatives was on display this week, when Patrick released a television ad claiming he was the only lieutenant governor hopeful who opposes existing state law allowing the children of people who entered the U.S. illegally to pay in-state tuition at Texas universities if they graduated from high school in Texas. Patterson called Patrick a lair, saying he's long advocated for the 2001 law's repeal.
Patterson says he's the only candidate who can protect traditional Texas values as more people move here to take advantage of a state economy flush with new jobs.
"We want to preserve, protect, defend, advance those things we are rightly proud of," he said.
Then he went a step further, suggesting booting California, New York, Massachusetts and Connecticut from the U.S.
"I get lots of questions all the time, 'Well, we should secede.' I say, 'No, I've got a better idea. Instead of secession, I'm a proponent of expulsion,'" he said. "I want to kick about four states out of this union."
Patterson eventually conceded: "This is a little tongue in cheek."
"But nonetheless,' he continued, "just think about how different our country would be if New York and California weren't the tail wagging the dog. And those other states? It's not America."