What is a special session and why are some Texas lawmakers urging Gov. Greg Abbott to call one?

The only way for laws to be added, removed or changed right now in Texas is a special session; Abbott only person who can call one

Gov. Greg Abbott speaks at a news conference in Uvalde following the shooting at Robb Elementary. (Copyright 2022 by KSAT - All rights reserved.)

Alina Borrego, an 11-year-old from Uvalde who previously attended Robb Elementary School and lost a friend in last week’s mass shooting, told KSAT 12 that “If we want the (community) to heal we need some new rules... Some people shouldn’t have guns.”

President Joe Biden made a similar point on Twitter after visiting victims’ families and attending mass in Uvalde: “We’re committed to turning this pain into action.”

But the only way “new rules” or laws can be made in Texas right now is through a special legislative session. The only person with the authority to call a special session is Gov. Greg Abbott. (The next regular meeting of the Texas Legislature isn’t until January, long after students return to campus in the fall.)

That’s why the Texas Senate Democratic Caucus — and some Republicans — are urging Abbott to act now and call lawmakers to Austin for a special session.

The calls for gun reform were made in the wake of Tuesday’s massacre, when 21 people were gunned down at the Uvalde elementary school. The gunman purchased two assault rifles and more than 1,500 rounds of ammunition legally, shortly after his 18th birthday.

In a letter sent to Abbott on Saturday, the Democrats said that “Texas has suffered more mass shootings over the past decade than any other state.”

“After each of these mass killings, you have held press conferences and roundtables promising things would change. After the slaughter of 19 children and two teachers in Uvalde, those broken promises have never rung more hollow. The time to take real action is now,” the letter read.

What is a special session and how could it change policies?

What is a special session?

The Texas Legislature is a part-time Legislature that meets once every two years. This five-month period is the only time state laws can be added, removed or modified. That is, however, unless the governor calls a special session during the interim.

The governor is the only person in state government who can call the 30-day special session, and he can call it as many times as he wants. The governor also has unilateral authority to decide what type of policies are in play for the special session.

Special sessions are not rare - in fact, in 2021 Abbott called lawmakers back to Austin for three special sessions. There was also one special session in 2017 and three specials in 2013.

All 13 Senate Democrats on Saturday called for a special session, including state Sen. Roland Gutierrez, who represents Uvalde, in response to the massacre there.

Additionally, several House Democrats have called for the special session, as well as at least a few Republicans, including state Rep. Jeff Leach, of Arlington, and state Sen. Kel Seliger, of Amarillo.

Why solutions have Texas Democrats offered?

The Texas Senate Democratic Caucus called for a special session on Saturday, just days after the Uvalde massacre, which is now the deadliest school shooting since Sandy Hook.

In the wake of the Uvalde shooting, authorities learned that the shooter, Salvador Ramos, legally purchased one AR-style rifle on May 17 and another rifle on May 20. Both purchases happened just days after Ramos turned 18.

Ramos possessed 60 magazines total with 1,657 total rounds of ammunition, according to DPS Director Steven C. McCraw. He fired more than 160 rounds on Tuesday.

In a letter, Senate Democrats laid out the changes they want to discuss in a special session:

  • To raise the minimum age to purchase a firearm to 21. Currently, 18 is the minimum age under federal law for buying a rifle, including assault rifles. Biden previously said that an 18-year-old’s ability to “walk into a gun store and buy two assault weapons is just wrong.” In Texas, you must be 21 to purchase a pistol but only 18 to buy a long gun, which includes rifles and shotguns.
  • Require universal background checks for all firearm sales.
  • Implement “red flag” laws to allow the temporary removal of firearms from those who are an imminent danger to themselves or others.
  • Require a “cooling off” period for the purchase of the firearm.
  • Regulate civilian ownership of high-capacity magazines.

A portion of the letter states:

On Friday, Gutierrez interrupted Abbott’s news conference and urged him to call a special session.

“We have to do something, man,” he said to Abbott. “Just call us back.”

What is Abbott’s response?

In Friday’s news conference, Abbott said “all options are on the table” when it comes to calling a special session. At the same time, though, he told the NRA in recorded comments that gun laws don’t stop mass shooters.

He did not specify if a special session would be formed, but pledged that “laws will come out of the crime.”

Abbott said past laws will be revisited when it comes to making schools safer, addressing police “shortcomings” and helping people with mental health issues. But he stopped short of addressing gun control laws.

“There was nothing about the laws from this past session that has any relevancy to the crime that occurred here,” he said. “There is an array of healthcare issues that we face as a state in general but there are an array of healthcare issues that relate to those who commit gun crimes in particular.”

“Those need to be addressed,” Abbott said.

Gun laws are unlikely to gain traction in the longtime Republican-controlled Legislature, which typically backs looser restrictions on firearms. Republican primary voters determine the outcome of most state legislative elections in the state, and tighter gun laws do not sit well with GOP primary voters.

On Friday, Abbott said he opposed the idea of universal background checks, saying that did not prevent the mass shootings at Santa Fe High School and Sutherland Springs.

“Anyone who suggests, maybe we should focus on background checks as opposed to mental health, I suggest is mistaken,” he said.

What have Texas lawmakers done about gun laws recently?

Abbott said he would consider a “red flag” law following the Santa Fe shooting, when a 17-year-old gunman killed 10 in 2018 but ultimately stopped short.

In that shooting, Dimitrios Pagourtzis, a 17-year-old student, used a shotgun and a .38-caliber handgun that his father purchased legally.

Then, Abbott said he wanted to improve school safety and said orders restricting gun control could have prevented the Sutherland Springs massacre.

In that shooting, Devin Patrick Kelley killed 25 churchgoers in 2017 although his history of domestic abuse barred him from buying guns. He was able to buy four guns over four years because his criminal history was never entered into a federal database used for background checks.

But since those two tragedies, gun rights activists pushed back on the “red flag” proposal, and it died, the Texas Tribune reported.

More recently, the “constitutional carry” law went into effect after the 2021 State Legislature.

The law allows Texans 21 and over to carry handguns — openly or concealed — without obtaining a state-issued license or any training, so long they are not excluded from possessing a firearm by another federal or state law.

Previously, Texans who wanted to carry a pistol needed a state-issued license that required training, a proficiency exam and a background check.

What are federal lawmakers saying?

As president, Biden has tried to address gun violence through executive orders. He faces few new options now, but executive action might be the best the president can do, given Washington’s sharp divisions on gun control legislation.

In Congress, a bipartisan group of senators talked over the weekend to see if they could reach even a modest compromise on gun safety legislation after a decade of mostly failed efforts.

Encouraging state “red flag” laws to keep guns away from those with mental health issues, and addressing school security and mental health resources were on the table, said Sen. Chris Murphy, who is leading the effort.

While there is nowhere near enough support from Republicans in Congress for broader gun safety proposals popular with the public, including a new assault weapons ban or universal background checks on gun purchases, Murphy, D-Conn., told ABC’s “This Week” that these other ideas are “not insignificant.”

The group will meet again this coming week under a 10-day deadline to strike a deal.

“There are more Republicans interested in talking about finding a path forward this time than I have ever seen since Sandy Hook,” said Murphy who represented the Newtown area as a congressman at the time of the Sandy Hook shooting. “And while, in the end, I may end up being heartbroken, I am at the table in a more significant way right now with Republicans and Democrats than ever before.”

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About the Authors:

Rebecca Salinas joined KSAT in the fall of 2019. Her skills include content management, engagement and reporting.

Kolten Parker is digital executive producer at KSAT. Previously, he worked at the San Antonio Express-News and the Texas Observer.