AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — Texas' muscular gun-rights lobby swiftly pushed back after Gov. Greg Abbott raised the possibility of tighter firearms laws in response to a gunman killing 22 people at an El Paso Walmart.
The resistance could test the relationship between gun-rights groups, Abbott and the state's Republican leadership, which eased gun restrictions after previous mass shootings in 2017 and 2018.
Before Abbott could even convene a closed-door meeting Thursday at the Capitol with lawmakers and law enforcement in response to the El Paso shooting, gun-rights advocates rallied outside. Several demonstrators openly carried assault-style rifles, and demanded Texas not infringe on their liberty.
After the meeting, the governor raised alarms about the inability to track private gun sales, which are largely unregulated and don't require a background check. Hours later, the Texas State Rifle Association emailed its members with a response to calls for new gun restrictions.
"NO, NO and NO," wrote Alice Tripp, the NRA-affiliated group's legislative director and lobbyist, a powerful figure around Texas politics for the last two decades. "This country, this state, has mountains of existing gun law being ignored or under prosecuted."
Tripp said it was Democratic lawmakers from El Paso in the meeting who pushed for more gun laws. But it was Abbott who publicly questioned private gun sales and cited a "danger" in who might be buying and selling in that weapons market.
"Right now there is nothing in law that would prevent one stranger from selling a gun to a terrorist," Abbott said, "and obviously that's a danger that needs to be looked into."
State Sen. Jose Rodriguez, an El Paso Democrat, said the governor was pushing for ideas on guns laws.
Abbott was "really pushing people to explore where are the gaps in existing law, and secondly where do we need some additional laws that are possible solutions to some of these issues," Rodriguez said.
Abbott's office did not immediately respond to requests for comment Friday. Gun rights activists are closely watching what he does next.
The governor has another meeting scheduled in El Paso next week. The Legislature doesn't meet until 2021, after the 2020 elections, and Abbott has shown no sign of calling lawmakers into special session.
Abbott held similar meetings in 2018 after mass shootings at a church in Sutherland Springs a high school near Houston. He later released a 43-page report which called for lawmakers to at least consider so-called "red flag" laws and tougher restrictions on home gun storage.
Gun-rights advocates pounced and he quickly backed away from anything critics deemed gun control. Abbott instead signed a series of new laws expanding gun rights pushed by the Legislature's Republican majority.
Those included easing restrictions on where firearms can be carried, from schools to churches, apartments and foster homes, and barred cities from passing their own gun and ammunition sales limits. Lawmakers also approved putting more armed personnel in schools.
Thursday's gun-rights rally outside the Capitol included members of Open Carry Texas and Gun Owners of America. Both groups complained they were left out of Abbott's meeting.
"There's a lot of worry among the grassroots that our Republican politicians are losing their loyalty to defending Constitutional rights," said Open Carry Texas founder C.J. Grisham. "This is the habit of Greg Abbott. The people make it known we don't like this and he backs off. It makes us wonder where does he really stand, and where would he be without grassroots?"
Also at the rally was Stephen Willeford, who was hailed as a hero for shooting back and wounding the gunman who killed more than two dozen people at the Sutherland Springs church in 2017.
Standing at the gate to the Capitol grounds, Willeford held up the AR-15 rifle he used that day, which still has police evidence tags attached and hasn't been fired since.
"I used this rifle to defend my community," Willeford said. "Without my Second Amendment, I would not have had this rifle. The shooter would have had his."