Texas House passes ban on devices that modify handguns, but averts vote on increasing age to buy semi-automatic rifles

Dozens of people hold signs and chant at a May 8 rally in the rotunda of the state Capitol to call for a vote on House Bill 2744, which seeks to raise the age requirement to purchase semi-automatic rifles from 18 to 21. (Evan L'Roy/The Texas Tribune, Evan L'Roy/The Texas Tribune)

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The Texas House on Thursday approved a bill that would outlaw tiny devices used to modify handguns essentially into fully automatic firearms — but avoided a full chamber vote on raising the minimum age to purchase semi-automatic rifles after a representative tried tacking the proposal onto the bill as an amendment.

House Bill 3266, from Rep. Frederick Frazier, R-McKinney, would criminalize possessing, manufacturing, transporting, repairing or selling devices designed to make handguns capable of automatically shooting more than one shot — without manual reloading — by a single function of the trigger.

The devices, commonly known as “Glock switches,” are already illegal to possess or manufacture under federal law. The bill would give local authorities and prosecutors the ability to levy charges.

“This bill is to put bad people in jail that are using this device and this is to protect your law enforcement that’s all come out in support of this throughout the state of Texas,” Frazier told lawmakers before the chamber voted.

The 81-60 vote arrived after two lawmakers introduced amendments, including one from Democratic Rep. Joe Moody, of El Paso, that would have revived a legislative provision to raise to 21 the minimum age to purchase certain semi-automatic rifles. Families of the victim’s of last year’s school shooting in Uvalde have spent months calling on lawmakers to support such a bill.

The amendment was identical to House Bill 2744, from Democratic Rep. Tracy King, who represents Uvalde. HB 2744 missed a key legislative deadline Tuesday — a day after it cleared another crucial deadline with an unexpected vote.

Both proposals would have prohibited selling, renting, leasing or giving a semi-automatic rifle with a caliber greater than .22 that is capable of accepting a detachable magazine to a person younger than 21 years old — an increase from 18 years old.

Exceptions in both — which King said he added to his bill after hearing from constituents — included situations in which the recipient of the firearm is a peace officer or a current or honorably discharged member of the U.S. Armed Forces. Both also include exceptions for certain recreational activities, like for lawful hunting or sporting.

Families of children who were killed in the Robb Elementary School shooting almost a year ago have supported the idea, with some rallying last summer before going to the Capitol regularly since January to urge lawmakers to take action.

The pleas preceded a surprising vote Monday when a select House committee advanced HB 2744 with an 8-5 vote — with two Republicans joining Democrats — during a meeting that had not been even scheduled when families and activists rallied in the morning at the Capitol, again imploring lawmakers to act on HB 2744.

In answering questions about his amendment Thursday, Moody said he had not seen Uvalde families smile until that vote. The El Paso Democrat was part of a select committee that last summer was tasked with investigating the shooting in an effort to establish facts about what occurred following government officials’ inaccurate and imprecise characterizations of the shooting and police response in the immediate wake of the massacre.

“It seems like a lifetime ago already but just earlier this week, when the substance of this amendment was voted out as a bill, I took note of something. I’ve been around the families from Uvalde for going on a year. Not once before that day had I ever seen any one of them smile,” Moody said. “Not one of them had I seen shed a tear out of anything but sadness. Not once had I hugged them and felt that there was some hope until that vote. Those folks deserve this conversation and they deserve to have that hope.”

The amendment was withdrawn after state Rep. Briscoe Cain, R-Deer Park, raised a point of order, a legislative maneuver to delay or kill proposed legislation on technicalities. State Rep. Vikki Goodwin, D-Austin, also tried adding an amendment to HB 3266, although it was different from Moody’s and also withdrawn following a point of order against it.

To date, lawmakers in the Republican-controlled Legislature have avoided a record vote on where they stand on the idea of raising the age to purchase semi-automatic rifles. A recent poll found that a majority of Texans of both parties support the measure.

It was not immediately clear if Frazier, whose district borders Allen — the site of the state’s latest mass shooting — supported Moody’s amendment. He told WFAA this week he is “absolutely” willing to consider some gun measures.

Last weekend, a gunman with an AR-15-style rifle killed eight people and wounded seven others at the Allen Premium Outlets before he was fatally shot by police. Frazier in his interview pointed to videos from the mall that circulated on social media.

“We want citizens to be armed, we want citizens to protect themselves but we also don’t want maniacs that have pure evil in their heart to go out there to kill our families and everyone else’s family,” Frazier said. “If you saw those videos and you saw those bodies piled up and you saw what happened there and that doesn’t make you think that we’ve got something wrong, then you have something wrong. That’s how most of us feel.”

Karen Brooks Harper contributed to this story.

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