Gun safety advocates see signs of progress in first session after Uvalde shooting even though raise-the-age bill stalled
Emotions often ran high over a proposal to limit young adults’ access to some firearms. Lawmakers have largely prioritized school safety measures, but there was still progress for some gun-related legislation.
AUSTIN, Texas (TEXAS TRIBUNE) - From the outset of this year’s legislative session, Democratic state Sen. Roland Gutierrez knew his attempts to restrict young adults’ access to semi-automatic rifles faced long odds in a GOP-controlled Legislature that’s spent years loosening gun restrictions in the face of continued mass shootings.
He’s spent nearly five months trying anyway, championing the cause of constituents whose children and loved ones were killed in Gutierrez’s district last year, when an 18-year-old used an AR-15-style rifle to kill 19 elementary school students and two teachers in Uvalde.
Gutierrez’s likely final attempt — amending another gun bill to raise the minimum age for buying certain semi-automatic rifles from 18 to 21 — failed last week, just days before the one-year anniversary of the Robb Elementary massacre.
With key legislative deadlines looming and the reality of almost-certain defeat setting in, Gutierrez spoke directly to Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and his fellow senators. He described horrific and heartbreaking details of what law enforcement found inside two classrooms after officers finally confronted the Uvalde gunman last year. He apologized for repeatedly and publicly lashing out about the lack of legislative progress, but he simultaneously held tight to his outrage.
“I sure am sorry to all of you, the way that I have behaved this session,” he said, his voice breaking as he drew deep breaths. “I am angry as hell. And I see these kids when I go to bed at night. I see them in the morning when I wake up. Their parents are all my friends.”
The first legislative session since the worst school shooting in Texas history is poised to end next week without the passage of a raise-the-age law that Uvalde families have spent almost a year pushing lawmakers to pass, often with wrenching testimony about the loved ones they lost in the massacre.
Gov. Greg Abbott has said the measure is unconstitutional, and top legislative leaders have said it did not have the support needed to become law. In response to the Uvalde shooting, legislators have instead backed school safety bills that give the state more power to require school districts to create active-shooter plans and use part of their school safety budgets to place silent panic alert buttons in each classroom.
Yet there has been progress for some gun-related legislation aimed at minimizing mass shootings and rising gun deaths in Texas. Advocates of what many see as sensible gun reform — like promotion of safe gun storage — logged a mix of wins and loses, at times within a matter of hours.
“This session had its moments of, ‘Gosh, are things changing a little bit?’” said Nicole Golden, executive director of the group Texas Gun Sense. “At the same time, I have experienced some major lows.”
Those who oppose the regulation of firearms considered the all-but-certain death of the raise-the-age proposal a victory. But some of them also sensed a slight change in the political atmosphere — and not in their favor.
“We’ve noticed that the Legislature is a little more hesitant to pass pro-gun legislation right now,” said Wesley Virdell, Texas state director for Gun Owners of America. “It has been a so-so session. We haven’t gotten some of the bills we’ve wanted through, but we’ve also stopped a lot of the bad bills — so, mediocre.”
Meanwhile, as Texas’ five-month legislative session unfolded in Austin this year, gun-related deaths in Texas have only continued. Less than two weeks after Uvalde families provided emotional testimony at a committee hearing about how their lives had been torn apart by gun violence, a man outside of Houston killed five neighbors after one had asked him to stop firing his AR-15-style rifle because a baby was trying to sleep.
Then on May 6, as Uvalde families and gun reform advocates made thousands of calls to lawmakers and prepared to travel to Austin for a rally, a man armed with an AR-15-style rifle killed eight people — including three children — at a mall in Allen.
As lawmakers relaxed gun laws in a push to expand Second Amendment rights in recent years, deaths from firearms have continued rising in Texas, reaching levels not seen in almost three decades. There were 15 deaths by firearms per 100,000 people in Texas last year, a 50% jump from 1999, when there were, on average, 10 deaths by firearms per 100,000 people. The last time Texas’ firearm death rate — which includes suicides, homicides and accidents — exceeded 15 per 100,000 people was in 1994.
Uvalde families joined lawmakers at the Capitol two days after the Allen shooting for another press conference urging the passage of the raise-the-age bill. State Rep. Gene Wu, a Democrat from Houston, said he looked at everyone’s faces when he walked into the press conference room, which was filled with mass shooting survivors and relatives of victims.
“I saw glistening eyes, red eyes, tired eyes,” Wu said. “I know, like me, they spent the weekend crying. Crying for the other Texas families, crying for the more dead Texas children, crying because more people have to go through their pain, crying because we refuse to do anything.”
* * *
Adecade ago, Golden remembers, lawmakers were reluctant to publicly support the causes she advocated for — like improving background checks and regulating where guns can be carried — even if they privately said they were behind her.
“The sentiment was generally that they wanted to support us — quietly,” Golden said. “There was uncertainty to come out swinging publicly, being vocal that they were allies and supporters of gun safety legislation.”
That changed during this session.
The House Select Committee on Community Safety heard numerous bills related to guns and gun safety, giving advocates like Golden the opportunity to testify in support of proposals — something she said was not common in past sessions, when bills rarely got a hearing or she mostly testified against bills.
Suddenly it became more common for lawmakers, like Gutierrez, to hold press conferences urging their colleagues to debate policy proposals, like the raise-the-age proposal that a majority of Texans support.
“It went from kind of whispers of support to big speeches on the floor and trying amendments,” Golden said. “That’s because advocates have pushed and pushed steadily.”
The wins logged by gun safety advocates were not just symbolic milestones like hearings and committee votes.
A bill that is headed to the governor, Senate Bill 728, requires courts to report involuntary mental health hospitalizations of juveniles age 16 and older for inclusion in the federal gun background check system — closing a loophole exposed by The Texas Tribune and ProPublica after the Uvalde shooting.
The House advanced a bill that would outlaw tiny devices used to modify handguns essentially into fully automatic firearms, which are already illegal under federal law. With less than a week left in the session, a Senate committee has yet to give it a hearing.
House Bill 2454 to restrict straw purchases — when a person buys a gun for another person who is not allowed to have one — has passed both chambers. The House must now decide whether to accept the Senate’s changes or ask for a conference committee to iron out the differences.
“We have definitely seen unlikely allies in this movement here this session,” said Christina Delgado of the Community Justice Action Fund, who turned to advocacy after the Santa Fe High School shooting in 2018. “With the amazing work that these survivors have done to put themselves out there, to fight this fight, to turn their pain and tragedy into courage and strength to honor their children — that has been the turning point to be able to really connect with these lawmakers on a human level.”
Still, it’s not enough for bills to advance if they don’t actually become law.
“I don’t think we get to pat ourselves on the back,” Gutierrez said of bills that mimicked federal law and created offenses for giving a gun to someone who is not allowed to have one. “They want to go home and talk about their bills. Well, listen, I filed 21 bills on commonsense gun safety solutions. Zero of them passed, zero of them got a hearing.”
* * *
When the House safety select committee scheduled a hearing for House Bill 2744, which would raise the minimum age to purchase certain semi-automatic rifles, the tiny meeting room reached capacity even before all the news cameras had been lined up in the back.
Scores of people registered to testify on HB 2744, from state Rep. Tracy King, a Democrat who represents Uvalde, but it was anyone’s guess when the bill would be called.
Families of Uvalde victims had already spent months traveling to the Capitol, lobbying lawmakers and urging passage of gun-related legislation during emotional press conferences that Gutierrez hosted.
“I didn’t get them here. It wasn’t me coming, having them knock on your door,” Gutierrez said during his impassioned speech on the Senate floor last week. “It’s all they had left to be able to come to you and advocate that this wouldn’t happen again to anybody else’s kids. Of course we know it has.”
An hour passed after the start of the April 18 committee hearing for HB 2744, and state Rep. Ryan Guillen, the Rio Grande City Republican who chairs the House Select Committee on Community Safety, had not called it up. The panel recessed to join the rest of their colleagues on the House floor to tend to the day’s chamber business.
The committee did not reconvene for nine more hours.
Parents waiting to tell lawmakers about their final memories with their children who had been killed in Uvalde passed the hours eating pizza and wondering if lawmakers were making them wait on purpose.
At 10 p.m. — 13 hours after the start of the committee meeting — the panel began the hearing for HB 2744.
The Texas Tribune thanks its sponsors. Become one.
Kimberly Mata-Rubio, whose daughter Lexi was killed in the Uvalde shooting, was the first witness to testify.
She told the committee that the wait reminded her of May 24, when she and her husband, Felix, waited hours to learn what had happened to their daughter.
“I arrived here today at 8 a.m.,” Mata-Rubio said. “I expressed confusion then, and I’m perplexed now. Did you think we would go home?”
For the next four hours, most of the testimony was in support of HB 2744.
Velma Lisa Duran, whose sister Irma Garcia was one of the two teachers killed in Uvalde trying to shield her students from gunfire, put a big sticker on her face. It was the size of the hole left on her sister’s face by a bullet fired from a gun that the gunman bought legally.
Those who opposed the bill extended their condolences to those sitting behind them — many whimpering throughout the hearing — but said the bill would be unconstitutional and would deprive law-abiding 18- to 20-year-olds of their entrenched American rights because of the actions of a countable sum of young adults.
“There’s a lot of emotions that are running high about everything right now,” said Virdell, of Gun Owners of America. “The problem we have is that the statistics don’t match up to the emotional narrative.”
Last year, a federal judge said Texas can’t forbid 18- to 20-year-olds from carrying handguns, saying the ban violated their Second Amendment rights. Lawyers for the state initially indicated they would appeal that ruling but dropped plans to challenge it after gun rights groups expressed anger.
But Uvalde families have been undeterred in their quest to limit access to semi-automatic rifles. In the case of the Uvalde shooting, HB 2744 proponents have argued, a law like HB 2744 would have stopped the gunman from buying his guns and destroying a community within days of turning 18 years old.
“So what’s the irony of this?” Jackie Cazares’ uncle Manuel Rizo asked at the April hearing on the raise-the-age bill. “There’s not a single 18- to 20-year-old here to speak against raising the age. Do you see them here?”
* * *
For weeks, HB 2744 lingered in committee and looked like it wouldn’t advance. But two days after the Allen mall shooting — and hours before a key legislative deadline — the safety committee approved the bill in a surprise move, letting it clear a vital hurdle on its path to being debated by the entire House.
Two Republicans were among committee members voting to advance it. State Rep. Justin Holland, a Republican from Rockwall, said he voted in favor of HB 2744 after hearing hours of testimony from Uvalde victims’ families.
Bill supporters’ cheers and sobs filled the meeting room after the vote took place. But their relief and hope were short lived.
The bill missed another key deadline to advance the next day, disappointing Uvalde families who were again at the Capitol, pushing for the bill to come up for debate in the House. The bill’s demise came despite the work of political operatives and activists who made thousands of calls and sent thousands of emails asking for the legislation to advance.
“I’m a mom and I think about my child who’s 5 years old getting shot at school every single day,” said Caroline Hemphill Roesel, one of the many who was making calls. “It’s much harder to be a parent with this going on in the background of our lives. The stress level for parents that I know, in general, is through the roof. I couldn’t do nothing.”
It was one of many bills aimed at addressing gun violence that advanced only so far this session. House Bill 690 would have targeted community gun violence through the state’s health department and local violence interruption programs. Senate Bill 912 aimed to curb unintentional shootings by kids by making it a third-degree felony to leave a readily dischargeable firearm accessible to a child who accesses the gun and fires it, wounding or killing another person. House Bill 853, which would designate August as Firearm Safety Awareness Month, was voted out of committee but also did not progress further.
Leesa Ross, a proponent of the awareness month bill, founded the organization Lock Arms for Life after one of her sons died in an accidental firearm discharge. She held out hope because the proposal was added as an amendment to another bill and still has a chance at becoming law.
Parts of a similar proposal — regarding the education of safe gun storage — were ultimately added as an amendment to House Bill 3, a priority school safety bill that the Senate approved Sunday. The bill went back to the House, which must accept the Senate’s version or negotiate the differences before the bill goes to the governor.
“If we don’t even get a gun safety awareness month, I mean what does that say about our state?” Ross asked. “It should not be this way. It should be that we are a community that cares about safety and safety of our families and children, and we want to do everything together.”
* * *
Democratic state Rep. Joe Moody, D-El Paso, tried to revive the raise-the-age provision when the House voted on a bill to prohibit “Glock switches” used to transform handguns into fully automatic weapons.
He withdrew the amendment after state Rep. Briscoe Cain, R-Deer Park, contested that it would not have been germane to the original bill.
Like Gutierrez, Moody knows what it’s like to fight for gun legislation after a mass shooting back home. In 2019, a gunman fatally shot 23 people at a Walmart in El Paso in a racially motivated rampage against Hispanic people.
After that shooting, top Republican officials expressed an uncharacteristic openness to some gun control measures. But in the 2021 legislative session that followed, the Legislature went the other direction and allowed Texans to carry handguns without a license or training.
In a 2021 speech in opposition to the permitless carry bill, Moody shared a story of meeting a family who lost two relatives in the El Paso shooting. The family forgave the shooter, Moody said, “and all they wanted was something better, all they wanted was some accountability.”
“Yet here we are. I get it, there’s nothing I can do, I can’t stop this,” Moody said, pointing behind him from the House floor on the brink of the permitless carry bill’s passage. “But I couldn’t stop tonight without sharing my disappointment.”
Moody named other lawmakers whose districts had experienced shootings, adding, “And it’s going to come to yours, too, because we fail to be responsible to the members of our communities across this state. I pray that it doesn’t, but it is. I wish it wasn’t, but it will.”
* * *
Federal lawmakers acted with unusual speed after the Uvalde shooting shook America. Within weeks of the May 24 massacre, Congress passed the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act, which U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, helped negotiate. The law contains modest provisions but was also the most significant federal gun measure passed in nearly 20 years.
Gutierrez has faced a more solitary road in the Texas Senate. Of the 21 bills he filed in response to the Uvalde shooting, none is poised to make it to Abbott’s desk before the end of the legislative session Monday.
At one point this year, Gutierrez ran afoul of Patrick, the staunch conservative who presides over the Senate, during a debate on a bill meant to keep kids from seeing sexually explicit drag shows. After state Sen. Bryan Hughes, the Mineola Republican who authored that bill, said the legislation was meant to protect children, Gutierrez said, “We haven’t done a whole lot of protecting the children when it comes to guns and ammunition.”
That comment drew applause from Texans sitting in the Senate gallery, but Patrick warned that if Gutierrez didn’t keep his comments focused on the legislation up for debate, the lieutenant governor would stop recognizing the senator to speak.
But last week, after it appeared that all efforts to raise the age for semi-automatic gun purchases would fail and Gutierrez apologized to the chamber for his behavior this session, Patrick told him apologies weren’t necessary.
“I know that this has struck you very hard,” Patrick said.
That acknowledgement from the lieutenant governor came moments after Gutierrez also told Senate Republicans that they need to back some restrictions on gun access and tell fellow members of the GOP that they are wrong on the issue.
In the same speech, Gutierrez urged senators to watch law enforcement videos from the Uvalde shooting and described some of the carnage the footage shows.
On Monday, Gutierrez said there was not much more to say beyond what he’d already said about gun safety legislation in an interview with the Tribune last week and his speech from the Senate floor.
“We are going to keep pushing forward,” he said.
Copyright 2023 KWTX. All rights reserved.