Texas Politics

DPS now proactively monitoring threats as lawmakers assess closing gun law loopholes

State lawmakers tasked with providing recommendations to prevent future mass shootings looked for ways Tuesday to potentially close loopholes in Texas’ gun laws.

Lawmakers peppered Texas Department of Public Safety officials with questions for a little more than 90 minutes to learn more about how DPS monitors potential threats, and to assess avenues for stronger enforcement, such as improved reporting of stolen firearms.

Members on both sides of the gun debate sat just behind the witnesses testifying to ensure their stances were known.

The House Select Committee on Mass Violence Prevention and Community Safety, formed by House Speaker Dennis Bonnen just days after the mass shooting in Midland and Odessa, is tasked with recommending legislative solutions.

Rep. Drew Darby, R-San Angelo, and chair of the committee, noted lawmakers can’t pass specific legislation, but stressed that the committee is eager to hear from Texans firsthand. The committee plans to travel to other cities, including Odessa, El Paso, Houston, Amarillo and the Dallas-Fort Worth area.

“My hope is that this select committee can develop worthwhile recommendations for combating mass violence and improving public safety in our state,” Darby said. “My commitment to you is that we will listen, we will work and we will engage in a serious conversation about these important matters.”

The hearing focused primarily on DPS’ progress on executive orders and directives Gov. Greg Abbott issued. Abbott has repeatedly stressed his goal is to “keep guns out of the hands of criminals while protecting the Second Amendment rights of law-abiding citizens.”

Abbott’s directives toward DPS include increasing the number of special agents assigned to various departments, establishing a Domestic Terrorist Section within the Texas Fusion Centers, and working with local law enforcement to improve training and reporting of suspicious activity.

“We realize that yes, there’s limited resources, but the government directed it right now,” DPS Executive Director Steve McCraw told lawmakers. “We’re diverting from other activities is what we’re doing, so we can have 24/7 coverage on threat activities.”

McCraw said the most significant threat is “a self-radicalized lone actor using available weapons with soft targets.”

“Propaganda has proliferated throughout the internet world, and of course some of that is racially based,” McCraw said, pointing to the El Paso attack that targeted Hispanics.

Rep. Armando Walle, D-Houston, asked if DPS was devoting personnel to monitoring such activities before the recent shootings.

“There’s no personnel that I’m aware of that were monitoring the types of forums that we’ve been talking about. That did not exist,” McCraw said. “The proactive part is now just beginning.”

Rep. Barbara Gervin-Hawkins, D-San Antonio, noted that in both shootings concerns were raised to law enforcement before they occurred.

The mother of the suspected gunman in the mass shooting in El Paso called the Allen Police Department to ask about her son’s firearm. And ahead of the Midland and Odessa shooting, the gunman called the FBI’s tip line, in addition to 911.

“It’s about how do you get that in the system and report it to law enforcement, because at the end of the day law enforcement is in the best position to protect somebody from an immediate and imminent threat,” McCraw said, stressing the need for the public to report suspicious activity.

As part of a slew of recommendations put forward in a report last week, Abbott recommended steps be taken to prohibit straw purchases, punish people who lie and try to purchase firearms, and require the reporting of stolen guns.

Rep. Cesar Blanco, D-El Paso, asked what data DPS keeps on 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.

But Skylor Hearn, deputy director of DPS Law Enforcement Services, said the state is limited in what data it collects.

“We can tell you crimes committed with firearms through our (Uniform Crime Reporting) program data,” Hearn said. “But it doesn’t go down to the depth of whether that was legally purchased or illegally purchased.”

While DPS does have numbers on how many stolen firearms are reported, when pressed by Rep. Joe Moody, D-El Paso, Hearn acknowledged those numbers may not be the full picture, as it does not include unreported thefts.

“Annually we’re somewhere around 18,000 reported firearm thefts in Texas a year. I don’t think we know what we don’t know,” Hearn said, who noted that information would be helpful to law enforcement.

Rep. Charlie Geren, R-Fort Worth, asked about the possibility for the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives to share data on instances when someone lies on federal forms to purchase a firearm, so the state can work with local district attorneys to prosecute those instances more regularly.

Checks on individuals who falsified information through the federal National Instant Criminal Background Check System resulted in 112,000 denied purchases in 2017, according to a September 2018 report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office that was cited in Abbott’s report. Of the 12,700 that ATF referred for further investigation, U.S. Attorney’s Offices prosecuted 12 cases as of June 2018.

“You would need a state law that said, ‘That’s a crime,’ ” Hearn said.

Collaboration with social media companies, improving communication and ensuring guns stay out of the hands of people who have committed acts of domestic violence and are prohibited from owning them were also topics raised by lawmakers.

The committee is required to submit a preliminary report to Bonnen in December and a final report in October 2020. It will also work with its Senate counterpart to produce recommendations. The Senate committee is set to hold its first public hearing later this month on Sept. 26 at the Texas Capitol.

On Wednesday, the House Administration Committee approved a budget of $241,000 for the select committee. Geren, chair of the House Administration Committee, noted the budget “is on the high end,” but stressed it won’t all be spent and is needed to last through the interim until lawmakers meet again in January 2021.

Geren said about $90,000 from the budget will go toward travel, and raised the possibility of extra security at future meetings across the state.

Teresa Beckmeyer, the operations director for Gun Owners of America Texas, said that good questions were asked at Tuesday’s hearing, but answers are still needed.

“The citizens of the state of Texas believe in the Second Amendment and would like for our lawmakers to stand up for our Second Amendment rights,” Beckmeyer said.

But Molly Bursey, the state legislative lead for the Texas chapter of Moms Demand Action, said it’s time for some lawmakers to go. Bursey said she was cautious to join Democratic lawmakers’ calls for a special session on gun violence after the legislature made it easier for guns to be allowed in more places this session.

“After the last session, I am personally hesitant to see the same legislature — unless they’ve had a change of heart — — come back,” Bursey said. “We’ve given them time to act. Unless they publicly turn around and make a stance that they’re ready to look at the research and look at the evidence that has been proven to save lives from gun violence, then it’s time to vote them out.”

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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.