Texas Senate approves bill that would create mandatory prison or probation terms for some gun crimes

A handgun with a magazine which holds 17 rounds is displayed by an employee of McBrides Guns in Central Austin on April 20, 2021. (Jordan Vonderhaar For The Texas Tribune, Jordan Vonderhaar For The Texas Tribune)

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The Texas Senate on Wednesday approved a bill that would require people who use a firearm while committing certain felonies to serve 10 years in prison or on probation if convicted.

Under Senate Bill 23 from Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston, judges wouldn’t be able to offer people charged with some gun-related crimes the opportunity to have convictions wiped from their records if they successfully complete probation. Juries could recommend probation, but it would have to last 10 years, and the conviction could not be removed from a criminal record.

People convicted of a crime while on probation for a gun-related offense would have their sentences stacked, meaning they would begin serving the second one upon completion of the first.

The Senate voted 30-1 in favor of the bill Wednesday. It now heads to the House.

Huffman said during a March 23 Senate committee hearing that the bill stems from a surge in violent gun-related crimes across the state since 2019. Some of the bill’s major opponents are strange bedfellows. Criminal justice reform advocates see the bill as a regression to tough-on-crime policies. Gun rights groups fear law-abiding gun owners who defend themselves with their weapon could face time in prison.

“We know that extended sentences do not reduce crime. Most offenders commit the crime while under the influence of drugs or alcohol or they are emotionally unstable, and they don't take into consideration the actual penalty of the crime,” said Wes Virdell, Texas state director for the Gun Owners of America, who shared self-defense concerns. “While we truly believe in fair and just punishment, a one-size-fits-all approach is not the solution.”

Experts have theorized the increase in crimes, which occurred in both urban and nonurban areas across the country, were caused by a series of factors, including the mental health impact of lockdowns during the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic and a rise in the number of guns on the streets. Homicides surged even as other crimes decreased, but the homicide rate still remained lower than highs of the 1990s.

“Mandatory sentences act as a potential deterrent for anyone considering illegally using a firearm and are a tool for prosecutors to keep violent criminals off the street,” Huffman told lawmakers on the State Affairs Committee.

Criminal justice research has shown that mandatory minimums do not reduce crime.

A bill analysis from the state’s Legislative Budget Board found that 1,708 people were sent to state prison last year for felonies that included the use of a deadly weapon, although not necessarily a gun. State data does not track the specific type of weapon that was used. There also weren’t statistics available for how many people were sentenced to probation but otherwise would have been sent to prison if SB 23 were already in effect.

That lack of data made it impossible to determine how the bill would impact the state’s prison population, the demand for more prison system resources or the state budget, the LBB analysis said.

Each person incarcerated in a Texas prison costs the state roughly $28,000 per year, according to the LBB.

“This bill will allow Texas to take a stand against the illegal use of firearms in the commission of a crime,” Huffman said.

The bill has received some opposition from gun rights advocates who fear people trying to defend themselves could end up facing 10 years in prison if they use their gun. Huffman said the bill would not change existing self-defense protections.

Lawyers who fear the bill is too broad have also opposed its passage, including two who testified to committee members in March.

Members of the Houston and Dallas police unions registered their support for the bill but did not testify at the committee hearing on the bill.

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