Texas Politics

Texans, Democrats call for action on gun control. Others say it’s not needed

Dozens braved the muggy heat Monday morning in Austin to give a small part of themselves in honor of the victims of Saturday’s mass shooting in El Paso. There to give blood, donors said it was a small act to give back in the face of a brutal weekend marred by two mass shootings within 24 hours.

“I’m happy to actually try to make some kind of difference rather than just sending thoughts and prayers, because that doesn’t do anything,” said Marta Saenz, a Travis County pretrial officer who was giving blood for the first time.

Looming behind the trees just a short walk from the blood drive was the dome of the Texas Capitol, where lawmakers this past session passed legislation to increase resources for mental health and school safety, while also making it easier for guns to be allowed in more places, like churches.

Democratic state lawmakers have been vocal about the need for stricter gun control laws, while some Republican lawmakers have held steadfast in their positions on guns.

Rep. Charlie Geren, R-Fort Worth, helped organize the Austin blood drive, and said he couldn’t imagine the horror people in the Walmart went through during the shooting that left 22 dead. Asked if Texas needs stronger gun control laws, his answer was a simple: “No.”

“Law enforcement needs to investigate this. Let’s see where we are. What was behind this?” Geren said. “If it’s a hate crime, it should be prosecuted as a hate crime.”

Sen. Kelly Hancock, R-North Richland Hills, said in a statement that tough questions will need to be addressed as more information comes to light.

“But what we know right now is the unchanging truth that only one thing drives out evil, hate, and fear, and it’s not legislation, it’s love,” Hancock said.

But Democratic lawmakers have said that thoughts and prayers are meaningless without being backed by policy change.

“That’s been the extent of policymakers’ action, and that’s what got us in this place,” said Rep. Ramon Romero, D-Fort Worth. “Inaction is endorsement of what’s happened in El Paso and Dayton and in California.”

State leaders response

Vanessa Fajardo, a Travis County pretrial officer who was in line to give blood Monday, said the frequent mass shootings have begun to leave her feeling desensitized. In 2019, there have been at least 255 mass shootings in the United States, according to the Gun Violence Archive, a nonprofit that tracks gun-related violence.

This time around, Fajardo said what made her especially angry was elected officials’ refrain from labeling the shooter a domestic terrorist. In a manifesto that is believed to be written by the gunman, the shooting was said to be “a response to the Hispanic invasion of Texas.”

“We put a lot of emphasis on immigrants and Muslim terrorists, but we never talk about the the homegrown domestic terrorism that we have here,” Fajardo said.

Texas Land Commissioner George P. Bush was the first to do so over the weekend, urging the U.S. to stand firm “against white terrorism.” Texas state representatives and members of the Congressional delegation quickly followed, calling the gunman “a racist white nationalist terrorist,” and the shooting “a heinous act of terrorism and white supremacy.”

Meanwhile, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick told Fox News on Sunday that he believes the El Paso shooting is a hate crime against immigrants, but also questioned the influence violent video games. The next day, President Donald Trump also pointed to video games for their “glorification of violence,” and, like Gov. Greg Abbott and U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, stressed the need to address mental health issues.

“When there is a mass shooting and Republicans say we need to talk about mental health but not guns — everyone should be skeptical. Their record on mental health simply doesn’t support their words,” Rep. Chris Turner, D-Grand Prairie, wrote on Twitter Sunday, citing Texas’ role leading a lawsuit to overturn the Affordable Care Act. The act requires many plans to cover mental health benefits.

Romero stressed that much more than just mental health needs to be addressed.

“Anti-immigrant rhetoric was the cause of death of those folks in El Paso,” Romero said. “This is about guns. This is about mental health. This is about politicians looking to separate Americans. And we must stand against that.”

Calls for action

Texans giving blood Monday said they wanted to see lawmakers act to reform gun control laws.

As a gun owner, Travis County Constable Stacy Suits said action needs to be taken at both the state and federal level.

“I’d like to see ammunition clips at 10 rounds or less and quicker background checks with more emphasis on mental health screening,” Suits said. “I don’t see any point of having an ammo clip with more than 10 rounds. If you need more than 10 rounds, you’re hunting people, you’re not hunting animals.”

Saenz said enacting stricter gun laws makes sense, pointing to the fact that authorities noted the rifle used in the El Paso shooting was purchased legally.

“I just can’t even fathom how people think that nothing should be changed at this point,” Saenz said. “There’s absolutely no need for assault rifles for self protection. It’s just a murder weapon.”

Ernest Fuentes, who works in the Secretary of State’s Office, stressed that he feels the issue lies with monitoring who can own a gun, rather than the presence of guns themselves.

“If somebody wants to get a gun illegally, they’re still going to get it,” Fuentes said. “But if somebody has issues mentally where they should not be able to access guns, that’s a different situation.”

Raymond Valles, a sales manager based in Austin for Destination El Paso, said members of his family were on the front lines of the shooting. Valles said El Paso earns its recognition as one of the safest cities in the U.S., and that he hopes lawmakers address gun safety in a special session so it stays that way.

“This is something that is happening now,” Valles said.

Democratic Tarrant County lawmakers joined a growing number of elected officials who said they would support a special session. State lawmakers wrapped up their biennial legislative session in May, and aren’t set to reconvene until 2021.

Rep. Nicole Collier, D-Fort Worth, said in a statement Monday that she would welcome a special session to address gun safety, and plans to address it in interim hearings of the House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee, which she chairs. Collier recounted a time when she called a gun a weapon during a committee hearing on gun legislation. A witness took offense, and insisted the person is the weapon, not the gun itself, Collier said.

“Absurd! This is a fallacy,” Collier said in a statement. “Without stronger gun regulations, we won’t see a decline in these dreadful occurrences.”

In a statement Monday, Sen. Beverly Powell, D-Burleson, also said she would support a special session “to debate additional investments in mental health resources and common-sense gun safety measures.”

Numerous Tarrant County lawmakers did not respond to requests for comment on whether they would support a special session related to gun safety or mental health.

Rep. Diego Bernal, D-San Antonio, urged state lawmakers on Twitter to join in his call for a special session focused on reducing gun violence, and Rep. Roland Gutierrez, D-San Antonio, sent a letter to Abbott requesting just that. While a growing number of mostly Democratic lawmakers have signaled their support, Abbott ultimately has the sole discretion to call one.

Special sessions were not held after the mass shootings in Sutherland Springs in 2017 and Santa Fe in 2018.

While Fajardo said she would like to see lawmakers act now, ultimately she hopes the actions of individual Texans will have a collective effect.

“What seems small and insignificant — a bunch of drops in a glass — will eventually spill over,” Fajardo said.

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Tessa Weinberg is a state government for the Star-Telegram. Based in Austin, she covers all things policy and politics with a focus on Tarrant County. She previously covered the Missouri legislature where her reporting prompted an investigation by the Attorney General’s office. A California native and graduate of the University of Missouri, she’s made her way across the U.S. and landed in Texas in May 2019.