After fumbled Uvalde shooting response, Texas senator wants to make it easier to sue law enforcement officers

Families of the Uvalde school shooting victims gather on Jan. 24, 2023, at a press conference during which state Sen. Roland Gutierrez, D-San Antonio, introduced new legislation in response to the 2022 massacre. (Evan L'Roy/The Texas Tribune, Evan L'Roy/The Texas Tribune)

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State Sen. Roland Gutierrez, who represents Uvalde, said Tuesday that he is leading legislation to make it easier for families of the Robb Elementary School shooting victims to sue the state and police officers over the botched law enforcement response.

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The San Antonio Democrat and other Democratic senators are introducing four new pieces of legislation that seek to increase gun safety and law enforcement accountability. The news came during a press conference, where they were flanked by several of the victims’ families.

“We’re not asking for the moon and the stars. We’re asking for commonsense solutions,” Gutierrez said.

Gutierrez filed Senate Bill 575 to end qualified immunity for police officers, a judicial doctrine that shields government officials from liability for constitutional violations. The doctrine has been spotlighted nationally in recent years because it is routinely used to protect law enforcement officers from being sued in cases of excessive force. He said ending qualified immunity will make it easier for the families of the Uvalde shooting victims to seek damages after the flawed law enforcement response to the Uvalde school shooting, in which hundreds of officers descended on the school but did not confront the gunman for over an hour.

This bill is accompanied by Senate Concurrent Resolution 12, which he co-authored with other Democratic senators, that “empowers” families of the Uvalde shooting victims to sue the state and its agencies.

“I support law enforcement 100%, but under no circumstances should they have [allowed] what happened on that day,” Gutierrez said. “They failed these children for 77 minutes for a lack of leadership — under no circumstances should they be allowed to walk away and not compensate people. There’s no amount of money that’s going to bring back their children. But there should be justice, so today’s about justice.”

Gutierrez said he plans to file about 20 bills in total in response to the Uvalde shooting.

The Texas Rangers’ criminal investigation into the Uvalde school shooting is still ongoing. Christina Mitchell, Uvalde’s district attorney, said earlier in January that she doesn’t expect to receive the final report for a few more months.

Black lawmakers in the Texas Legislature previously attempted to end qualified immunity law in 2021 as part of a sweeping reform proposal following the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer. The effort failed.

In addition, Gutierrez and other Democrats seek to establish a compensation fund for victims of violence on school grounds, going beyond school shootings, via Senate Bill 574. The money, they said, would come from a new tax on retail sales of firearms and ammunition in Texas.

The Democratic state senators are also proposing Senate Concurrent Resolution 11 calling on Congress to repeal the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act, which would allow the families to sue gunmakers for their advertising practices.

Gutierrez previously filed three Uvalde-related bills back in November, the first day lawmakers could submit legislation for the 2023 session.

Among them, Senate Bill 144 suggests creating “extreme risk protective orders” to keep guns away from those who pose a danger to others and themselves. Senate Bill 146 would create a $300 million compensation fund for the shooting’s victims that would pay $7,700,000 per victim to their immediate family or household members. It would also pay $2,100,000 per survivor with serious physical injuries and $250,000 for those with mental or emotional disability.

Most notably, Senate Bill 145 proposes raising the minimum age limit for buying or renting firearms from 18 to 21 — a key proposal that has been pushed for by the victims’ family members and Texas Democrats. The gunman in the Uvalde shooting had just turned 18 years old when he bought two AR-15-style rifles that he subsequently used in the massacre.

This move is doomed to fail without the support of top Republicans. Last year, Gov. Greg Abbott repeatedly said that raising the age limit to 21 for the purchase of assault-style rifles would be “unconstitutional” due to recent court rulings. Texas House Speaker Dade Phelan, R-Beaumont, has also voiced opposition to the idea at the 2022 Texas Tribune Festival and reiterated earlier this month that the House likely doesn’t have the votes to support it.

“I just know, given I can count votes, and I told the families very candidly in Uvalde, ‘I don’t want to mislead you. I just want to tell you, this is where the votes are in the Texas House,’” Phelan said on Jan. 12.

But family members of the victims present during the Tuesday press conference once again stressed the need for more gun control in the state.

“The age limit should be raised to 21 because having families torn apart is unbelievable,” said Felicha Martinez, the mother of Xavier Lopez, a student who died in the shooting.

“Holidays are supposed to be filled with love and joy and happiness. Instead, I was filled with emptiness. This was our first Christmas that my husband and I did not sit with our children to open gifts. Instead we’re locked in our room, crying, full of hurt and anger because the one person that was the loudest during Christmas was no longer here.”

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