Texas’ Loose Gun Laws Won’t Likely Change After Uvalde
Texas’ gun laws—among the most permissive in the country—have come under heightened security after an 18-year-old gunman shot and killed at least 19 children and two teachers in Uvalde, Texas on Tuesday.
Since 2016, six mass shootings took place in Texas. The gun control advocacy group Giffords: Courage To Fight Gun Violence rates Texas with the lowest gun laws. It gives Texas an F on the Giffords Annual Gun Scorecard 2021.
“Year after year, tragedy after tragedy, lawmakers in Texas not only refuse to pass life-saving gun safety laws — they actively choose to strip us of our basic public safety measures,” Shannon Watts, founder of gun control group Moms Demand Action, said in a statement to TIME.
Over the last decade, Texas has relaxed its gun regulations. 2016 saw Texas legalize open-carry handguns. In addition, public colleges and universities were required to permit handgun license holders to keep their weapon on campus. Republican Texas Governor Greg Abbott passed seven laws last June that eased gun restrictions, which included a law permitting anyone 21 and older to legally own a handgun. Texas has no law that restricts assault weapons and doesn’t require all gun sales to pass background checks. “If anything, Texas has gone the opposite of many places, in spite of the fact that several gun related massacres have occurred in the state during that time period,” says Mark P. Jones, a fellow in political science at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy.
Abbott’s office did not respond to TIME’s request for comment.
Yet polling indicates most Texas voters aren’t as far to the right on gun policy as their laws would suggest. University of Texas/Texas Tribune polls dating back to 2015 found that majority, or even majorities, of Texas voters supported tighter gun laws. Joshua M. Blank is the director of research for the Texas Politics Project at University of Texas at Austin. Yet during that time, the state’s politicians have loosened the laws instead. “There’s a disconnect,” says Blank. “[Like] other states in America, it’s not the majority of voters who are driving this discussion and the policies being produced in Texas.”
Jones contends that the Second Amendment issue’s power has the most impact on rallying the GOP base. This includes the almost two million GOP voters who showed up in Texas to vote during the primaries. “The key to power in Texas remains the Republican primary, not the general election,” he says. “And in the Republican primary, holding positions on Second Amendment rights and gun control that are well to the right of the average Texas voter is a winning strategy.”
After past mass shootings, Texas loosened gun laws
Texas has seen some of the most violent mass shootings across the nation in the last five years. Although the Republican leadership expressed an interest in tightening guns restrictions following some tragedies, substantial gun control policies in Texas have not gained momentum in Texas’s legislature which meets twice a year.
In 2018, after a 17-year-old gunman killed 10 people and injured 13 more at a school shooting in Sante Fe, Abbott called on lawmakers to look into a “red flag” law, which would allow local officials to take firearms away from someone if a judge declares them a danger to themselves or others. But a few months later, Abbott said he saw a “coalescence” against the proposal by lawmakers. The 2019 legislative session saw the adoption of laws to strengthen mental health for children and teachers as well as emergency response training. Additionally, school marshals were allowed guns to be carried on school campuses.
Galveston County Judge Mark Henry. Sen. Ted Cruz, Texas Governor. Greg Abbott, Texas Lt. Governor. Dan Patrick and Greg Abbott speak with the media in a press conference regarding the Santa Fe High School shooting on May 18, 2018. Santa Fe, Texas.
Bob Levey—Getty Images
In August 2019, thirty people died in mass shootings at El Paso, and Odessa. This happened months after the end of the legislative session. Following the session, Governor Dan Patrick and Lieutenant. Governor Dan Patrick—both Republicans—spoke about expanding background checks for gun purchases, after it was reported that the Odessa shooter had failed a previous background check and bought his weapon via a private sale. It was two more years before the Texas legislature convened in 2021. Despite the fact that it was still supported by voters, lawmakers had given up on this issue. A University of Texas/Texas Tribune poll in June 2021 found that 55% of Texans supported background checks for all firearm purchases. Only 11% opposed them.
Despite growing pressure from the right, Abbott signed a bill during the 2021 session which conservative activists long wanted. It allows Texans, who do not need a license, to legally carry handguns. In laying out his policy priorities in February 2021, Abbott said that Texas must become a “Second Amendment sanctuary state.”
“What the last session showed was that the desires of an intense minority in the Republican Party in Texas is enough to push public policy,” says Blank of the Texas Politics Project, noting that redistricting has solidified red districts in the state and made GOP primaries more competitive. “And in Republican primaries, simply maintaining the status quo is never going to be enough when facing activated constituencies and challengers looking to exploit them.”
Are Uvalde’s reforms possible?
After the shooting at Uvalde School, Gun Control Advocates are calling for action.
Abbott told reporters on Wednesday that the alleged shooter used an AR-15 assault rifle to carry out the attack, a revelation that could put “at least some Republicans on the defense,” says Jones, given that many Democrats, including Beto O’Rourke, the former U.S. Representative running for Governor of Texas, have called for bans on AR-15s and assault rifles.
On May 24, 2022, an officer walks out of Robb Elementary School, Uvalde Texas.
Allison Dinner—AFP/Getty Images
Georgina C. Pérez, a Democrat on the Texas State Board of Education representing a massive district that includes Uvalde, says she is a believer in Second Amendment rights, as are many other people in her community. But she has had three mass shootings in her district since 2019—two in schools— and she believes many voters in her area would also support gun control measures. “Do you know how many Democrats live on the border who are proud veterans, NRA card-carrying strong supporters of their own Second Amendment [rights]?” says Pérez, who lives in a town outside El Paso so small it doesn’t have a traffic light. “A whole bunch of us in the same communities where these things keep happening… We’re gun owners too, but we don’t need semi-automatic rifles for anything, and we definitely don’t have a problem with background checks and safety measures in our schools. Those things can be true at the same time.”
But whether reform can gain traction in the Texas legislature, which doesn’t reconvene again until 2023, remains to be seen.
An October 2021 University of Texas/Texas Tribune poll found that 67% of voters who identified as “strongly Republican” expressed at least some approval for how state leaders and the legislature have handled gun violence in Texas in the past. Blank from the Texas Politics Project reports that the Texas share of voters supporting stricter gun laws is consistent and has not changed in the polls done in October 2019 and February 2019, despite Odessa and El Paso shootings.
“As horrific as the most recent tragedy is, it seems unlikely to fundamentally shift the debate in Texas without a sustained effort on the part of those looking to strengthen Texas’ gun laws,” Blank says, “or at least keep them from getting even more lenient.”
Janell Ross/New York reporting
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