Politics & Government

To stop gun violence, Texas Republicans turn to gun lobby group based in Newtown

Santa Fe was the latest site of a mass school shooting in Texas. Fifty-one percent of Texas voters support putting guns in the hands of teachers and school officials, arming them during the school day, according to a new poll released Thursday.
Santa Fe was the latest site of a mass school shooting in Texas. Fifty-one percent of Texas voters support putting guns in the hands of teachers and school officials, arming them during the school day, according to a new poll released Thursday. AP file

In the wake of two deadly Texas shootings, the state’s Republican leaders are turning to an unlikely source for solutions: The gun lobby.

The firearms industry was instrumental in shutting down a gun violence prevention proposal pitched by members of both parties after the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in 2012, saying it would hurt its members’ ability to sell guns.

Now as pressure builds on both political parties, Republican leaders who control the governments in Washington and Austin are giving the industry's own gun safety ideas a chance.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott last week proposed giving a $1 million grant to a gun storage education program run by the National Shooting Sports Foundation — a trade association based in Newtown, site of the Sandy Hook shootings, that represents the firearms industry.

The program distributes gun locks to gun owners and encourages them to keep their firearms locked up when not in use. It’s part of a much larger gun violence prevention proposal Abbott unveiled after a shooter killed 10 students at Santa Fe High School in Texas last month.

The grant money would come from the Governor’s Criminal Justice Division, according to Abbott's plan.

Abbott's office did not respond to questions about the proposal. An NSSF spokesman said the group is working with the governor to "explore the way ahead."

NSSF also worked with Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, on a bill responding to the deadly church shooting in Sutherland Springs, Texas.

That effort seeks to strengthen the background check system used to screen gun buyers, by providing incentives to states and government agencies that share disqualifying records. Records missing from that database would have prevented the Sutherland Springs shooter from passing a background check.

Cornyn's bill built on an effort the NSSF championed after the Sandy Hook shooting.

“We, the industry, through the NSSF, launched [that] initiative,” NSSF Vice President Larry Keane said in an interview last week.

“We successfully changed the law in 16 states in about [four] years and increased the number of disqualifying mental health records, which was the primary record missing from the database, by 200 percent,” Keane said.

According to NSSF data, the background check system included about 1.7 million disqualifying mental health records before efforts to strengthen the system began in 2012. It now has roughly 5 million records. Pennsylvania, which had one record in 2012, now has more than 800,000.

A spokesman for NSSF said Texas hasn't been a target for the group's background check legislation because it voluntarily submits information to the database. Texas has about 280,000 disqualifying mental health records currently in the background check system.

The gun industry has long struggled to convince critics that it’s serious about stopping gun violence.

Groups fighting to crack down on deadly shootings blame the gun lobby for stopping past reform efforts, and say much bigger changes are needed to make serious progress on gun safety.

John Feinblatt, president of Everytown for Gun Safety, called Cornyn's bill a "no-brainer." He said before its passage that if it was the only measure Congress passed in response to major shootings, "it would be an inexcusable failure of leadership.”

Gun safety groups want lawmakers to close loopholes that allow people to avoid background checks if they purchase guns from certain places. The groups also want to end the sale of some assault-style weapons used in recent mass shootings.

In response to Abbott's proposal, Kris Brown, co-president of the Brady Campaign, implored the governor: "What are you planning to do about the guns?”

Keane, who lobbies on gun issues on Capitol Hill, said he couldn't see "any legislation passing Congress now that would ban modern sporting rifles."

A Quinnipiac University poll conducted in May found Texans split on their support for stricter gun control, with 49 percent in favor and 45 percent opposed. Ninety-three percent of respondents said they supported requiring background checks for all gun buyers.

The gun lobby enjoys tremendous influence in GOP-controlled Washington, and carries plenty of sway in how the topic is approached.

“To us, it’s the conduct that’s at issue, and how do you prevent people who should not have access to firearms from getting firearms?” said Keane.

Keane said his members could be open to proposals for "extreme risk protective orders," which take guns away from people suspected to be at risk of committing a violent crime. President Donald Trump also suggested that measure in a press conference earlier this year.

"We think that’s a concept that is worth exploring, but there are significant constitutional issues that have to be addressed as part of that," said Keane.

He said the industry also supports efforts to share relevant records between law enforcement agencies. It opposes efforts that heavily burden gun sellers, or limit the products they can sell.

Cornyn’s background check bill, signed into law this spring, is the first gun safety legislation Congress has approved in more than a decade. It had the support of 77 senators, including Republicans and Democrats, the National Rifle Association, and major gun safety groups.

"We think that there is common ground, and [the background check] legislation is a good example of that," said Keane. “[If] people can come together and focus on what we agree upon and not what divides us, we’ll get a lot more done."

Andrea Drusch: adrusch@mcclatchydc.com; @AndreaDrusch