After shootings, Abbott signaled openness to gun control; some worry he's moved on
In August 2019, Texas was devastated by the back-to-back mass shootings in El Paso and Midland-Odessa that left 30 people dead and dozens more injured. The massacres were so shocking and gruesome that it moved the state’s two top Republicans to do what was previously unthinkable — talk about gun control.
Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick met with lawmakers over the course of several weeks and publicly expressed an openness to at least one gun control proposal that could for the first time in more than decade make it harder for someone in Texas to buy a firearm, instead of easier.
But, laying out his legislative priorities this week for the first session since the shootings took place, Abbott stressed protections for gun owners and made no mention of the 2019 shootings.
“We need to erect a complete barrier against any government official anywhere from treading on gun rights in Texas," Abbott said, adding that he was pushing to make Texas a “Second Amendment sanctuary state.”
The absence of any mention of the mass shootings rankled gun control advocates and state lawmakers from El Paso, who see this legislative session as their best chance to advance the very measures Abbott and Patrick expressed support for in 2019.
“To not bring up El Paso, which is the most heinous act of race-based terrorism in the state’s modern history … is a disservice to the memory of those folks in El Paso, Odessa … and other victims of gun violence around the state,” said Ed Scruggs, spokesperson and board member for Texas Gun Sense, a group that advocates for gun control policies.
After the shootings, both Patrick and Abbott raised concerns about state laws allowing private gun sales between strangers without background checks.
“Right now, there is nothing in law that would prevent one stranger from selling a gun to a terrorist, and obviously that’s a danger that needs to be looked into,” Abbott said after meetings to consider policies addressing the El Paso Walmart shooting, when a gunman killed 23 people. The shooter posted a racist manifesto online shortly before the attack, admitting he was targeting Mexicans.
Patrick, who has had a perfect NRA rating, went so far as to say that he was “willing to take an arrow” from the gun lobby in order to pursue the change.
"Someone in the Republican Party has to take the lead on this," Patrick told The Dallas Morning News in 2019. “[O]ne day, [Democrats] could have the White House again, and they could have Congress, and they will pass draconian laws that dramatically impact our Second Amendment rights … And if Republicans do some common sense things, that helps us stave off that day.”
Neither Abbott nor Patrick responded to multiple requests for comment this week about whether they were still open to the gun control proposals.
Indeed, the coronavirus pandemic has diverted the Republican-controlled Legislature’s attention away from gun violence. Meanwhile, top GOP state officials are pushing for a swing to the right after Democrats swept the White House and U.S. Congress last year, but Republicans maintained control of the Texas House.
But a coalition of Democrats, El Paso lawmakers and gun control activists aren’t giving up.
“Our hope is that as much as [Abbott] supports the Second Amendment … he also supports protecting members of our communities, such as those who were killed here in El Paso,” said state Sen. César Blanco, an El Paso Democrat. “We’re committed to helping families and small businesses bounce back from the pandemic, but we’re also committed to passing solutions to prevent future mass shootings. We can do both.”
Blanco said he hopes Abbott’s “actions will speak louder than words” when it comes to supporting bills that arose from discussions after the shootings.
Those talks culminated in Abbott recommending to state lawmakers several ideas to keep guns out of the hands of people who should not possess them, such as banning “straw purchases,” where someone buys a gun for someone else, and cracking down on stolen guns. On stranger-to-stranger sales, Abbott stopped short of Patrick’s push for mandatory background checks, but suggested the Legislature “consider ways to make it easy, affordable and beneficial for a private seller of firearms to voluntarily use background checks when selling firearms to strangers.”
El Paso’s statehouse delegation had filed at least 19 gun violence prevention bills in total as of Tuesday, some crafted directly from the recommendations Abbott made in his 2019 Texas Action Safety Report.
“We’re going off of the report that came out of the governor's office,” Blanco said of bills he filed that aim to keep guns out of criminals’ hands, among other changes. “These bills are bipartisan and common sense gun safety bills that both Republicans and Democrats can sign onto.”
Blanco also filed legislation that would require background checks for private gun sales in Texas and would declare gun violence a public health crisis. State Rep. Joe Moody, D-El Paso, filed legislation to implement “red flag” laws that allow courts to order the surrender or seizure of guns from people deemed dangerous. State Rep. Lina Ortega, D-El Paso, introduced bills that would place restrictions on assault weapons.
James Henson, head of the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas at Austin, said he doesn’t expect gun violence to get much attention from leadership in the Legislature this year, based on Abbott’s recent messaging.
“That is not a signal that says, ‘Send sensible gun safety measures to my desk, and I’ll sign them,” Henson said. “Instead, he flagged, to some extent, the opposite direction.”
Recent polling shows the majority of Republicans in Texas are satisfied with the status quo on gun laws, Henson said. An October 2019 University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll, taken after the mass shootings, found that 43% of Republicans said gun laws should be left as they are.
Conservative lawmakers from the Midland-Odessa region, where seven people were killed in a mass shooting four weeks after El Paso, are taking a different approach to preventing future tragedies. State Rep. Brooks Landgraf, a Republican from Odessa, filed a bill to establish the Texas Active Shooter Alert System, which he said could have alerted community members in 2019 to the gunman’s shooting rampage.
The bill, which Landgraf said has broad support, underscores differences in how Democrats and Republicans approach gun violence, Henson said. While Democrats mostly attribute gun violence to the presence of guns, Republicans usually look to other solutions, such as bolstering the community's ability to prepare and respond to emergencies.
“If I’m doing my job right, I’m reflecting my community, and I think this active shooter alert system is a good reflection of where my constituents and our community is in the aftermath of our darkest day,” Landgraf said.
Scruggs, who attended gun policy roundtables in 2019 and those held after earlier mass shootings in Santa Fe and Sutherland Springs, said gun violence prevention seemed to take on new urgency among state leaders following El Paso and Midland-Odessa. Gun control groups were disappointed Abbott did not convene a special legislative session after the 2019 shootings, but held out hope for 2021, motivated by the top state leaders’ recognition of loopholes in the state’s gun background check laws.
“We have to be realistic. Are you going to see major moves? Likely we will not,” Scruggs said. “But if you’re going to have some moves in areas where there is some bipartisan agreement, this will be the session to do it.”
El Pasoans, still grieving and now also contending with the health and economic impacts of the coronavirus, have not forgotten the promises lawmakers made, Ortega said. On Tuesday, the El Paso delegation released a joint statement saying they remain committed to prioritizing gun violence prevention this year, a sentiment Moody echoed in an interview.
“The urgency and importance of [gun violence prevention] has never been more crystal clear to me than after that event,” Moody said. “Santa Fe, Sutherland Springs, El Paso, Odessa: How many more names do we want to add to that list before we start taking this seriously?”