Texas Politics

Abbott recommends easier access to background checks in private gun sales

After focusing mostly on improving resources for mental health and law enforcement in the wake of two mass shootings, Gov. Greg Abbott on Thursday recommended making background checks more accessible to sellers in private gun sales.

Abbott released the Texas Safety Action Report, pressing lawmakers to update laws to improve firearm safety. The report’s recommendations include making it easier for private sellers to use background checks in gun sales to strangers and cracking down on “straw” purchases and illegal attempts to buy firearms.

Abbott stopped short of calling for universal background checks or red flag laws, which provide law enforcement a means to confiscate firearms from people deemed dangerous by a judge.

“We’re beyond disappointed,” said Gyl Switzer, the executive director of Texas Gun Sense, a group that advocates for reducing gun violence. “If we’re not even talking about universal background checks and extreme risk protection orders — huge mistake.”

The report also outlined more potential actions, in addition to eight executive actions issued last week, which focused on improving the reporting of suspicious activity and better training of law enforcement.

In a news release, Abbott said actions in the 15-page report are only one aspect needed to prevent future mass shootings in Texas.

“Solving the problems that have led to these horrific events will take more than governmental action. The complete solution will require more than what is outlined in this paper,” Abbott said in the news release. “It will require parents, families, churches, law enforcement, community groups, schools, and others working together to fortify the social fabric of our society. Texans are at our best when we are tested. Together, we will transcend this test, and forge an even better future for our state.”

In the report, Abbott outlined policy areas lawmakers on the Texas Senate and House Select Committees on Mass Violence Prevention and Community Safety should focus on ahead of their first meetings later this month.

Abbott has repeatedly stressed following the shootings in El Paso and Midland and Odessa that his goal “is to keep guns out of the hands of criminals while protecting the Second Amendment rights of law-abiding citizens.”

To do so, Abbott recommended lawmakers consider multiple changes to state law. Some of the more notable measures include stronger enforcement of state laws regarding gun sales and mirroring federal law to ensure firearms don’t end up in the hands of people prohibited from owning them.

Abbott suggested prohibiting “straw” purchases — a term used to describe when someone who is legally allowed to buy a firearm purchases one for someone who is prohibited from doing so. While such purchases are prohibited by federal law, Abbott said a similar state law would give law enforcement more tools to “to pursue criminals before violence occurs.”

Additionally, Abbott suggested the legislature make it “easy, affordable and beneficial” for private sellers to use background checks in gun sales to strangers, including legal protection for the seller if the firearm is later used to commit a crime.

“They can do that now. Lots of them don’t,” Switzer said of private sellers using background checks. “So I don’t know how that would change without some sort of requirement.”

Under federal law, private gun sales do not require the purchaser to undergo a background check, and Texas has no state law requiring it.

The National Rifle Association pushed back on Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick’s call last week to extend background checks to stranger-to-stranger sales, many of which do not go through a federal database.

In a statement Thursday, Patrick said he worked closely with Abbott on the roundtables and expressed his confidence in the senators tasked with issuing legislative recommendations to prevent future shootings.

“Gov. Abbott and I both understand that a background check is needed for stranger-to-stranger gun sales and I am glad he included that issue in his list of recommendations for the legislature to consider,” Patrick said in a statement.

“I am confident the senators will move forward on these issues and will take a number of steps to make every Texas community safer — which is our shared goal.”

Another suggestion in the report included mirroring federal law by prohibiting convicted felons from ever purchasing a firearm. Currently under state law, a person convicted of a felony may possess a firearm five years after he or she has been discharged from probation or released from parole.

In addition to eight executive orders released last week, the report noted “there are other concrete steps that agencies may take in the immediate future,” and outlined possible steps to expand programs to intervene in instances of domestic violence, increase active shooter training for first responders and accelerate the start of a $1 million Department of Public Safety campaign on safe firearm storage.

Switzer applauded the acceleration of the safety campaign, and said the report did feature good ideas, including prohibiting straw purchases, punishing people who lie and try to purchase firearms, and requiring the reporting of stolen guns.

The report also addressed student mental health issues.

“Texans must reckon with the underlying causes of these acts of violence that are shocking manifestations of everyday callousness, indifference, bullying, disrespect for one’s self and others, hate, and ideological extremism,” the report read.

Despite the numerous measures outlined, some Democratic lawmakers were quick to call for more action.

“This does zero to stop guns falling into the hands of the bad guys. It is the most do-nothing ‘solution’ I’ve ever seen,” Rep. Roland Gutierrez, D-San Antonio, wrote on Twitter. “It is clear that the Legislature is the only place Texas families can get some help and at this point the Democrats are the only party offering real solutions to make Texas safer.”

Thursday’s report follows two Texas Safety Commission meetings and a Domestic Terrorism Task Force meeting — two groups of experts and lawmakers that Abbott convened in the wake of the Aug. 3 shooting in El Paso that killed 22 in an attack targeting Hispanics.

Following mass shootings in Sutherland Springs in 2017 and Santa Fe in 2018 similar roundtable discussions informed a 43-page school safety plan. Measures included in the plan were signed into law this past legislative session.

While lawmakers increased resources for mental health and school safety this session, they also loosened restrictions for guns to be allowed in more places.

Earlier this month, over 60 Democratic state lawmakers urged Abbott to call a special session to address gun violence, a step Abbott has said is not needed for action to be taken. Without one, lawmakers aren’t set to reconvene until January 2021.

“I went into the last legislative session after Sutherland Springs and Santa Fe thinking, ‘OK now is the time for progress.’ And then laws were made to make it easier to access firearms,” Switzer said. “How are we going to pass legislation with no legislature? We need to do something now.”

Related stories from Fort Worth Star Telegram

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.