Confronted with mass shootings, Texas Republicans have repeatedly loosened gun laws

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott at the second of three panels studying school safety and student mental health issues at the Texas Capitol in the wake of the 2018 Santa Fe High School shooting that left eight students and two teachers dead. (Bob Daemmrich For The Texas Tribune, Bob Daemmrich For The Texas Tribune)

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In the past few years, Texas Republicans have been quick to consider a crackdown on gun violence after a mass shooting.

They did so in 2018 after a 17-year-old entered Santa Fe High School and killed 10 people. Then again in 2019, when two mass shootings weeks apart occurred in El Paso at a Walmart and then in Midland and Odessa after a dismissed worker opened fire.

But when lawmakers have reconvened in Austin in the months after a mass shooting, those same leaders tend to fall silent on any restrictive measures when it comes to guns. In the last two legislative sessions, Texas legislators have loosened gun laws, most notably by passing permitless carry in 2021, less than two years after mass shootings in El Paso and Odessa took the lives of 30 people.

Now, after 19 children and two adults were killed Tuesday in a shooting at an elementary school in Uvalde, lawmakers are again facing the same questions: Could this have been prevented and how can the state avoid yet another mass shooting?

The gruesome attack is the deadliest school shooting in Texas history and occurred a little less than seven months ahead of the 10-year anniversary of a similarly horrific shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut, where 20 first graders and six adults were killed, the largest mass shooting at a K-12 school ever.

“It’s astounding to me,” said state Sen. Roland Gutierrez, a Democrat from San Antonio whose district includes Uvalde. “We’re supposed to create things. We’re supposed to create legislation to keep people safe. By God, to keep children safe. And here we’ve done exactly the opposite.”

[21 killed at Uvalde elementary in Texas’ deadliest school shooting ever]

Many details remain unknown about this particular tragedy, which has kept some officials from immediately suggesting policy changes or asking to call lawmakers in for a special legislative session. But the political reaction after previous mass shootings in the state has followed a repetitive pattern.

When a then-17-year-old student killed 10 people and injured 13 more in an art classroom in Santa Fe, near Houston, in 2018, Abbott called on state lawmakers to consider a “red flag” law that would allow state courts to take firearms away from a person who presents a danger to themselves or others.

[Texas has had eight mass shootings in the past 13 years, while lawmakers have steadily loosened restrictions on carrying firearms]

A few months later, he backed away from the idea after Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and gun rights activists drew a hard line against it. The state ended up passing laws more focused on boosting mental health resources and giving teachers more access to guns on public school campuses.

In August 2019, after 23 people were killed by an avowed racist at an El Paso Walmart, and a few weeks later, seven more people were killed in a shooting spree in Midland and Odessa, Abbott and Patrick discussed expanding background checks to include stranger-to-stranger gun sales.

By the end of the next legislative session in 2021, Patrick had gone silent on the issue. And the Legislature instead passed a bill long sought by gun rights advocates that allows Texans to openly carry a handgun without a permit.

Patrick did not immediately respond to questions about potential policy changes after the slaying in Uvalde. But appearing on Fox News on Tuesday evening, he told host Tucker Carlson that more could be done.

“We have to harden these targets so that no one can get in ever except through one entrance,” he said. “Maybe that would help. Maybe that would stop someone.”

In a statement released Tuesday afternoon, Abbott called for unity. His office did not immediately answer questions about bringing lawmakers back into a legislative session early to tackle issues related to mass shootings.

“Texans across the state are grieving for the victims of this senseless crime and for the community of Uvalde,” he said. “Cecilia and I mourn this horrific loss and we urge all Texans to come together to show our unwavering support to all who are suffering.​​”

Education advocates are yet again calling for the state to take a different path in response to this attack.

“We don’t need another round table of safety experts. We don’t need more active-shooter drills,” said Zeph Capo, president of the Texas chapter of the American Federation of Teachers. “We need legislation that addresses some of the most basic requirements for ensuring that unstable people don’t take the lives of our children and teachers.”

But Democrats in the Capitol are already skeptical that even the death of 19 children in a Texas public school will bring about any meaningful change to Texas’ gun laws.

“You’re not gonna get a majority of people in the Legislature to ever vote for gun control,” said state Rep. Harold Dutton, the chair of the House Public Education Committee. “I’m not sure we’ll ever have a legislative response to it. And I know, in Texas, it’s probably not going to happen. We’re simply going to wait for the next crisis to occur.”

40 ways to increase school safety

Just days after the May 18, 2018, shooting at Santa Fe High School, Abbott quickly convened a series of roundtable discussions with school leaders, parents, teachers, students and advocacy groups at the Capitol to discuss ways to improve safety in Texas’ public schools.

By the end of the month, the governor had unveiled his School and Firearm Safety Action Plan that included 40 recommendations to improve school safety and pledged to put $110 million toward implementing the suggestions.

“This plan is a starting point, not an ending place,” Abbott said at the time. “It provides strategies that can be used before the next school year begins to keep our students safe when they return to school. This plan will make our schools safer and our communities safer.”

Most of the recommendations centered around “hardening” schools with more training for school marshals and better security infrastructure in campus buildings. There were also suggestions to prevent future threats, including increased mental health evaluations and a behavior threat assessment program in schools.

When Abbott asked lawmakers to also consider a “red flag” law, he claimed in the plan that similar protective orders restricting gun possession could have prevented the mass shootings in Sutherland Springs, southeast of San Antonio, and Parkland, Florida.

Yet months after the proposal, Abbott abandoned the idea, stating the suggestion wasn’t meant to be a personal endorsement as hardline gun rights activists and the lieutenant governor came out against the idea. While a “red law” flag was filed that session, it never got a hearing.

A handful of the other proposals unrelated to gun restrictions from that plan were written into a sweeping school safety bill that the Legislature passed in 2019.

“​​Our goal is that no child will ever feel afraid at school and no Texas family will ever experience the grief that followed the horrible school shooting at Santa Fe High School,” Patrick said. “The safety of our children remains paramount — the future of Texas depends on it."

The law required certain training for school resource officers and emergency response training for school employees, as well as established a threat assessment team to identify potentially dangerous students and determine the best way to intervene before they become violent. It also created a Texas Mental Health Consortium to bring psychiatric professionals together.

Lawmakers also passed a bill giving more teachers access to guns.

As Abbott signed that legislation at the end of the 2019 legislative session, reporters asked if he still supported a “red flag” law.

Abbott said such a measure wasn’t necessary in Texas “right now.”

After mass shootings, permitless carry passes

A few months later, after lawmakers went home from that 2019 legislative session, Texas was again rocked by a racist attack that killed 23 people and injured dozens more at an El Paso Walmart. The shooter told police at the time he had chosen the location specifically because of its location near the border and that he was targeting Mexicans. He has been charged with a federal hate crime but has yet to be tried.

State leaders again quickly came together yet again to discuss possible solutions.

But before lawmakers could even make suggestions, a gunman killed seven people and wounded 22 others while driving through Odessa and Midland a few weeks later.

The back-to-back tragedies moved Texas’ Republican leaders at the time to show an uncharacteristic willingness to some gun restrictions typically backed only by Democrats.

Abbott swore to do “everything we can to make sure a crime like this doesn’t happen again,” proposing a slew of policies to keep guns out of the hands of criminals and other people who should not possess them. Patrick famously said he was “willing to take an arrow” from the National Rifle Association in order to pursue stronger background check laws.

But the governor didn’t bring lawmakers back to address the situation right away. So, when state policy makers reconvened for the first time after the pair of shootings in January 2021, priorities had again shifted. And measures which Abbott and Patrick had previously expressed support for, including bills to tighten the state’s background check laws and crack down on lost or stolen guns, stalled.

By the end of the session, the Legislature passed only two of the key gun safety bills written by Midland-Odessa and El Paso lawmakers — one to create a statewide active shooter alert system and another measure called the “lie and try” bill that makes it a state crime to lie to on a background check form to illegally buy a gun.

One high-profile bill on gun access did pass though: a permitless carry bill that Texas conservatives had long sought for and failed to achieve. The law allows most Texans to carry handguns openly in public without going through training or having to get permits. Long guns, like rifles and shotguns, had already been allowed to be carried without a permit.

“You could say that I signed into law today some laws that protect gun rights,” Abbott said at the bill signing last June. “But today, I signed documents that instilled freedom in the Lone Star State.”

On the chamber floor of the Texas House of Representatives, state Rep. Joe Moody lamented the bill’s passage. An El Paso Democrat, the lawmaker had aggressively pushed for gun restrictions in the aftermath of the slaying in his hometown. He also championed attempts to pass red-flag laws in the years before and after the Santa Fe shooting.

“I wish this was something that’s going to go away but it’s not,” Moody said Tuesday, echoing the sentiment he expressed in the state Capitol last year.

“It’s something that is going to visit every one of our communities, and until we take an approach to solving the problems that are solvable, then we’re going to continue to have this,” he said. “And it’s going to be a story that every person in every corner of the state will be telling, and that’s incredibly sad.”