Dark-money group features Uvalde shooter footage in ad criticizing Abbott’s gun policies

Gov. Greg Abbott speaks during a press conference at Uvalde High School on May 27. (Evan L'Roy For The Texas Tribune, Evan L'Roy For The Texas Tribune)

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A new dark-money group is airing a TV ad featuring footage of the Uvalde gunman, stirring controversy in the governor’s race.

The group, No It Couldn’t LLC, released the 30-second commercial Wednesday morning and has since started running it on TV as part of a small ad buy with limited reach. As of Thursday morning, the group had roughly $29,000 reserved on cable TV through Sunday, according to the media-tracking firm AdImpact.

The 30-second spot shows Gov. Greg Abbott predicting in 2021 that there would not be “any bad side effect” to the permitless carry law that he signed into law later that year. Then, for the next 15 seconds, the ad shows video of the Uvalde gunman walking through a hallway before turning toward a classroom door, at which point gunfire is heard.

The law that Abbott signed only applied to handguns; the permitless carry of rifles, like those used by the Uvalde gunman, was already legal.

The ad begins with a screen saying, “WARNING: DISTURBING CONTENT,” and YouTube has since added its own content warning to the video.

The group is at least the second dark-money organization to air TV ads in the race, following the similarly named Coulda Been Worse LLC. However, Coulda Been Worse has made a far larger effort, spending millions of dollars on weeks of TV ads targeting not only Abbott but also Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and Attorney General Ken Paxton. Such groups are set up to conceal the source of their funding, which was generally made possible by the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision.

The latest dark-money ad drew swift pushback from state Rep. Dustin Burrows, the Lubbock Republican who chairs the House’s investigative committee on the Uvalde shooting.

“It is completely irresponsible to use a mass shooter’s name or image,” Burrows tweeted. “Doing so gives them what they sought in the first place — notoriety. It also inspires others to copy cat their evil. I strongly condemn those who continue to do this with reckless abandon.”

Abbott’s campaign declined to comment.

Asked Thursday about the ad, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Beto O’Rourke said he had not seen it. But he said it is vital for voters to understand Abbott “hasn’t done a single thing” to prevent another school shooting.

“I can’t think of a more important issue for us,” O’Rourke said after a get-out-the-vote stop in San Antonio. “I want voters to know this is on the ballot.”

O’Rourke has previously said any dark-money group involved in the race should voluntarily disclose its donors.

Not all Democrats were pleased with the ad. At least one Democratic statewide campaign has privately expressed frustration with the spot, saying ad money should not be spent elevating the gunman over the victims’ families. O’Rourke has focused his Uvalde-themed ads on the families.

No It Couldn’t, like the other dark-money group Coulda Been Worse, is set up as an LLC in Delaware, a state notorious for its lax disclosure laws. Delaware records show the group was formed just 10 days ago.

Advertising forms filed with the Federal Communication Commission identify “Commercial Space Experts” as the buyer for No It Couldn’t LLC. Little is known about the entity, but it shares an Austin address with Hulsen Media Services, a Democratic firm.

A phone number linked to Commercial Space Experts on the FCC forms went to voicemail Tuesday. A person picked up at a second phone number listed in the FCC forms but hung up after a reporter explained they were inquiring about No It Couldn’t LLC.

The group’s ad-buying has flummoxed political observers. It initially bought broadcast time and then canceled within two days, according to AdImpact. The $29,000 in cable time is paltry compared with the scale of TV advertising being done by the Abbott and O’Rourke campaigns.

Nonetheless, the group sought to portray itself as a serious player in news releases sent Wednesday and Thursday to reporters. It said Wednesday the ad was “currently airing across Texas” and said Thursday the spot was running in “more markets across Texas.” The news releases were sent from an email address registered with ProtonMail, an encrypted email provider that is common with senders who want to remain anonymous.