Analysis: A Houston police death and the debate over who should have guns in Texas

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Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo speaks out against bathroom bills at a press conference on the steps of the state capitol on July 25, 2017. Austin Price/The Texas Tribune

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They wear their gunbelts a little tighter in Washington than in Texas.

You see that in the Texans in the U.S. Senate holding their ground on what’s known as “the boyfriend loophole” while statewide officials back home seem open to at least a conversation about some tougher gun regulation.

Don’t overstate what the locals are willing to do: Baby steps, folks. But officials like Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick have hinted at things that furrow the brows of people in the National Rifle Association and other Second Amendment groups.

That response to gun violence at the state level, however slight, isn’t being matched by Texas officials at the federal level. Here in Texas, there’s talk of “red flag” laws that would allow judges to temporarily seize the guns of people deemed dangerous to themselves or others. Expanding required background checks to include person-to-person sales between strangers.

The first was an Abbott suggestion after mass shootings at Santa Fe High School and at Sutherland Springs Baptist Church. The second, a Patrick statement after mass shootings at an El Paso Walmart and at a number of locations in Odessa.

The political weathervanes in Washington haven’t recorded any such changes.

Last Saturday’s killing of Houston Police Sgt. Christopher Brewster prompted Police Chief Art Acevedo to call out U.S. Sens. John Cornyn and Ted Cruz of Texas for their part in blocking legislation that would ban sales of guns to dating partners convicted of domestic abuse or subject to restraining orders for abuse. Such a ban exists for abusers of family members, but not for boyfriends and girlfriends.

That provision of the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act has been called a poison pill by gun rights advocates. It passed in the Democrat-controlled House and stalled in the Republican-controlled Senate.

“I don’t want to see their little smug faces about how much they care about law enforcement when I’m burying a sergeant because they don’t want to piss off the NRA,” Acevedo said. "Make up your minds. Whose side are you on? Gun manufacturers, the gun lobby, or the children that are getting gunned down in this country every single day?”

That angered some officers; the Houston Police Officers Union scolded Acevedo for making a political message of Brewster’s death. Cornyn and Cruz responded by saying they’re not against some restrictions. They also pointed to laws already in place they said should have kept guns out of the hands of the officer’s killer.

“I was surprised to hear the chief, who I've long considered a friend. He has my number, and if he had bothered to call me, I would’ve told him that we agree that convicted abusers shouldn’t be allowed to own a gun,” Cornyn said. In a phone call with reporters this week, he didn’t respond to questions about how he would vote on the boyfriend loophole.

He said it appears that Arturo Solis, the killer, shouldn’t have had a gun because of earlier convictions for family violence.

“The fact is that this killer was a criminal whom federal law already prohibited from having a gun,” Cruz said in a written statement.

Cruz won reelection last year and won’t be on the ballot for his current job again until 2024. But Cornyn is on the ballot next year, set to face the winner of a crowded Democratic primary in the general election in November.

The federal law expired almost a year ago. A new version passed the U.S. House, but is stuck in the Senate because of proposals to close the boyfriend loophole, expand the protections to transgender victims and allow U.S. citizens to be tried for domestic violence in tribal courts, and other provisions.

Even in Texas, where some leaders seem open to some changes in gun laws, the Legislature has been reluctant to increase restrictions. Abbott’s call for consideration of red flag laws, which preceded last year’s elections and this year’s legislative session, fell flat when Patrick said it wouldn’t get out of the Senate he leads.

The shootings in El Paso and Odessa occurred after the Legislature ended it’s 86th session. Lawmakers aren’t scheduled to return until January 2021 — after the 2020 elections.

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