By Jon Herskovitz
AUSTIN, Texas (Reuters) - Texas Governor Greg Abbott joked about shooting journalists while visiting a gun range on Friday to sign a bill lowering the cost of a handgun license, drawing criticism from gun-safety and free-press advocates who called his remarks "dangerous."
Abbott signed the bill at an indoor gun range in Austin, the state capital, then demonstrated his own shooting skills at an upstairs firing gallery before holding up his bullet-pocked target and quipping, "I'm gonna carry this around in case I see any reporters."
A photo of the moment, published by the Texas Tribune, showed the grinning first-term Republican governor pointing to the center of the paper target, where three rounds had pierced the bull's eye circle.
His comment drew sharp rebukes from Reporters Without Borders, headquartered in Paris, and the Washington-based Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. Both said the incident was especially troubling as it came amid increasingly hostile rhetoric directed against the news media by Republican President Donald Trump and his supporters.
"This joke was dangerous and out of line. Because it's never just a joke to some," Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence said in a statement. "Words matter. In a state and country where dangerous people can still so easily buy guns without a background check, leaders of every political stripe should be careful not to green light violence on their behalf."
The two groups also cited the misdemeanor assault charge filed on Wednesday against Republican Congressman-elect Greg Gianforte of Montana, accused of body-slamming a reporter who asked him about healthcare on the eve of his election.
"Politicians must condemn this dangerous rhetoric against reporters as it can quickly escalate to physical violence like we saw in Montana," Reporters Without Borders said in a Tweet.
The group's latest annual World Press Freedom Index of 180 countries ranks the United States at No. 43, one rung below the tiny West African nation of Burkino Faso.
"We're really seeing just how much America deserves that ranking right now," said Margaux Ewen, the organization's U.S. advocacy director.
Abbott's office did not respond to requests by Reuters for comment.
The bill he signed will cut fees for a first-time license to carry a handgun from $140 to $40, and lower the renewal fee from $70 to $40, starting in September. It also waives the fees for peace officers and members of the military.
"No law-abiding Texan should be priced out of the ability to exercise their Second Amendment rights," Abbott said in signing the measure.
(Additional reporting and writing by Steve Gorman in Los Angeles; Editing by Dan Whitcomb, Lisa Shumaker and Michael Perry)