Greg Abbott signed law 3 years ago to raise minimum age for tobacco from 18 to 21 in Texas

In Texas, you can buy an assault rifle 3 years before you can buy alcohol, cigarettes, handguns

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott holds a news conference with state agencies and local officials at Uvalde High School in Uvalde on Friday. (Reuters/Marco Bello, Reuters/Marco Bello)

The massacre in Uvalde has reignited a debate about the minimum age for purchasing an assault rifle in the U.S. and Texas.

The shooter who killed 19 children and two teachers in Uvalde was able to legally obtain two assault rifles along with more than 1,500 rounds of ammunition just days after turning 18, the minimum age under federal and state law for buying a rifle. (Texans must be 21 or older to buy a handgun.)

Since the May 24 tragedy at Robb Elementary School, the Texas Senate Democratic Caucus and some Republicans urged Texas Gov. Greg Abbott to call lawmakers for a special session.

One of the proposed solutions? Raise the minimum age to purchase assault rifles to 21, the Democrats said in a letter on Saturday.

Fort Worth’s Mayor, a Republican, said she supported raising the age last week.

But Republican Governor Greg Abbott has recently defended the current age limit, saying that “ever since Texas has been a state, an 18-year-old has been able to buy a long gun.” (When Texas became a state in 1845, weapons like the Henry 1860 Rifle and rifle-muskets were being manufactured.)

Instead, Abbott placed the blame on mental health issues (despite slashing $211 million in funding for the state agency overseeing mental health) and doubled down on keeping Texas’ porous gun laws in place.

“So for a century and a half, 18-year-olds could buy rifles and we didn’t have school shootings, but we do now. Maybe we’re focusing our attention on the wrong thing,” he said Friday.

But there is recent precedent for the state of Texas’ ability to raise the age limit on certain things in the name of public health.

In fact, Abbott did that just a few years ago.

In 2019, the governor signed a bill that raised the legal smoking age from 18 to 21 into law.

SB 21, introduced by Sen. Joan Huffman, a Republican from Houston, states that Texans must be 21 to buy, possess or use tobacco products, including e-cigarettes and other vaporizing devices. The law went into effect that Sept. 1.

Huffman said the effort was to keep the products “out of Texas public schools by creating more social distance between younger high school students and of-age purchasers, thereby reducing early addiction to nicotine and tobacco.”

The law does not apply to military members between 18 and 20 years old.

Since then, the use of tobacco by teens decreased from 21.8% in 2019 to 19.1% in 2021, according to the CDC and the American Lung Association.

Since President Joe Biden visited Uvalde, he said he does see a “rational” response to policies going forward and expressed some optimism that there may be some bipartisan support to tighten restrictions on the kind of high-powered weapons used by the gunman.

“The Second Amendment was never absolute,” Biden said. “You couldn’t buy a cannon when the Second Amendment was passed. You couldn’t go out and buy a lot of weapons.”

Further north, Canada acted on gun control within a week of the Uvalde shooting.

On Monday, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government introduced legislation that would put a freeze on importing, buying or selling handguns.

“We are capping the number of handguns in this country,” Trudeau said.

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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.