AUSTIN, Texas — There was hope in the air when state lawmakers from El Paso arrived in Austin for the 2021 Texas Legislature. For them, this was going to be the year they passed substantive firearm restrictions in gun-loving Texas — an unreachable, unfathomable goal for any other Legislative session.
But this wasn’t just any session. It was lawmakers’ first gathering since 2019, when 30 people were killed and dozens more were injured in back-to-back mass shootings in El Paso and Midland-Odessa. The tragedies were so earth-shattering that they moved Texas’ Republican leaders at the time to express an uncharacteristic openness to some gun control measures backed by Democrats.
Gov. Greg Abbott swore to do “everything we can to make sure a crime like this doesn’t happen again,” proposing a slew of policies to keep guns out of the hands of criminals and other people who should not possess them. Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick famously said he was “willing to take an arrow” from the National Rifle Association in order to pursue stronger background check laws.
What happened instead was a whiplash-inducing pivot in the opposite direction. The Legislature, which ended its work Monday, passed House Bill 1927, allowing Texans to carry handguns without a license or training — an expansion of gun rights so divisive Republican leaders in previous years refused to touch it. Law enforcement groups vocally opposed the measure, worried it would endanger officers and citizens and make it easier for criminals to get guns.
Abbott touted that the bill was “the strongest Second Amendment legislation in Texas history.” For El Paso lawmakers who spent days with Abbott, Patrick and others brokering gun safety compromises in the weeks following the attack on their hometown, it was a slap in the face.
“We’re not living up to the work that we did in the aftermath of those shootings, and quite frankly, it’s been forgotten,” said El Paso Sen. César Blanco, one of several Democrats who pushed for gun restrictions after the Walmart shooting when a gunman killed 23 people. The shooter posted a racist manifesto online shortly before the attack, admitting he was targeting Mexicans. “My best hope was to pass a lot of these sensible bills to keep our community safe, but [permitless carry] drastically moves the goal posts.”
Democrats’ legislation fails
After the shootings, both Abbott and Patrick raised concerns about state laws allowing private gun sales between strangers without background checks.
Democrats called for a special session in 2019 to address gun violence, hoping to capitalize while they had Abbott’s and Patrick’s attention. But the special session never materialized, forcing lawmakers to wait more than a year to file dozens of bills in response to the shootings.
Their efforts floundered. As expected, proposals to restrict assault weapons got little traction in the Legislature. Neither did bills to implement “red flag” laws that allow courts to order the surrender or seizure of guns from people deemed dangerous.
But more frustrating to Democrats was that other measures stalled which Abbott and Patrick had previously expressed support for, including bills to tighten the state’s background check laws and crack down on lost or stolen guns.
By the end of the session, the Legislature passed only two of the key gun safety bills written by Midland-Odessa and El Paso lawmakers — one to create a statewide active shooter alert system and another measure called the “lie and try” bill that makes it a state crime to lie to on a background check form to illegally buy a gun. Both have been signed into law by Abbott.
El Paso Democrats and gun control groups say those are good policies but that lawmakers should have done more.
“When the doors were closed, I heard lots of promises. I haven’t heard them since,” said state Rep. Joe Moody, D-El Paso.
“All [El Paso community members] wanted was something better. All they wanted was some accountability. Yet here we are,” state Rep. Joe Moody, D-El Paso, told colleagues on the floor before the House approved a deal on the permitless carry bill. “When the doors were closed, I heard lots of promises. I haven’t heard them since.”
Adding insult to injury for the Democrats, Abbott championed the “Second Amendment sanctuary state” bill that lawmakers passed. It was branded as a way to shield Texas from gun laws that could potentially be passed at the federal level, such as mandatory background checks for private gun sales.
Abbott in 2019 stopped short of Patrick’s push for mandatory background checks on private stranger-to-stranger sales, but he suggested the Legislature consider ways to make voluntary background checks for such sales easy and affordable. The “Second Amendment sanctuary state” bill prohibits state agencies and local governments from enforcing certain new federal gun rules — though legal experts say the move is largely symbolic.
Laying out his legislative priorities in February, Abbott made no mention of either shooting.
“We need to erect a complete barrier against any government official anywhere from treading on gun rights in Texas," Abbott said during his speech.
Lawmakers this year also doubled down on gun rights when they approved bills that would eliminate the governor’s power to ban gun sales during an emergency, prohibit big state and local government contracts “that discriminate against the firearm or ammunition industries” and make it legal for gun owners to bring weapons into their hotel rooms.
The Legislature also passed a measure which failed in 2019 to allow school boards to let school marshals carry guns on their person instead of being required to keep them locked up, among other gun rights proposals. The House approved a bill to allow election judges to carry a gun in most polling places, though it failed to gain traction in the Senate.
Asked how Abbott squares passing policies to expand and protect gun rights with his vows to prevent future tragedies like the ones in El Paso and Midland-Odessa, spokesperson Renae Eze said the governor “took decisive action” after the 2019 shootings, “directing state law enforcement to enhance anti-mass violence measures through eight executive orders and supporting [the Department of Public safety’s] safe gun storage campaign.”
Roundtable meetings with Democrats and gun safety advocates culminated with Abbott’s 2019 Texas Safety Action Report, which recommended the Legislature consider several items including banning “straw purchases,” where someone buys a gun for someone else, and cracking down on criminals who try to illegally buy or possess guns.
“Many of those have been taken up by the Legislature this session, including bills that would codify actions taken by the Governor and the Office of Court Administration following the report,” Eze said in an email. “The Governor will continue working with the Legislature and taking action, as laid out in the recent Texas Homeland Security Strategic Plan, to protect all in the Lone Star State.”
Asked which specific items based on Abbott’s report were taken up, Eze did not respond. Of the items recommended in Abbott’s report, the “lie and try” legislation — written by Blanco and sponsored by Republican state Rep. Charlie Geren — appears to be the only one that passed.
Before passing permitless carry earlier this month, the Texas Senate rejected a number of Blanco’s amendments that would have codified Abbott’s recommended gun safety proposals after the 2019 shootings. The amendments would have required background checks for gun sales between strangers, required courts to notify criminals that they may no longer possess a firearm and incentivized the reporting of lost or stolen guns, among other changes.
Patrick, who presides over the Senate, did not respond to requests for comment.
Blanco said he’s been perplexed as to why Republicans wouldn’t budge on measures Abbott backed.
“We have a report that gives recommendations. I’ve filed those recommendations as bills, I filed those recommendations as amendments,” Blanco said. “These were non-partisan, common sense solutions that came out of the Governor’s office. I figured there would be consensus.”
The crusade this year to expand and protect gun rights in Texas came as GOP lawmakers fell in line with the most conservative wing of the Republican party, focused on staving off challenges from the right during the 2022 primary elections.
Abbott, Patrick and other Republicans who were initially noncommittal about permitless carry were under immense political pressure this session from conservatives and gun rights advocates, who have long lobbied the Legislature for the bill but struggled to win support.
"By working together, the House and Senate will send Gov. Abbott the strongest Second Amendment legislation in Texas history, and protect the right of law-abiding Texans to carry a handgun as they exercise their God-given right to self-defense and the defense of their families," the bill’s author, state Rep. Matt Schaefer, R-Tyler, said in a May 21 statement.
Abbott has yet to sign the bill into law, though he has said he plans to.
Current law requires Texans to be licensed to carry handguns openly or concealed. Applicants must submit fingerprints, complete four to six hours of training, and pass a written exam and a shooting proficiency test. Texas does not require a license to openly carry a rifle in public.
The measure saw a breakthrough in April when the House passed the permitless carry bill. Patrick initially said the Senate did not have the votes for permitless carry, but he later created a new committee, referred HB 1927 to it and got the bill to the floor, where it passed last month.
“This is our first session since those tragedies, and this is our response: A bill to allow permitless carry," state Rep. Chris Turner, D-Grand Prairie, said on the floor May 23. "A bill to say you don’t have to have any training to carry a handgun in the state of Texas. And I can’t imagine a worse slap in the face to all those people who have advocated, to the victims and to the family of those victims.”
“I can’t imagine a worse slap in the face to all those people who have advocated, to the victims and to the family of those victims,” said state Rep. Chris Turner, D-Grand Prairie.
Fueling Texas Republicans’ push for permitless carry and other deeply conservative legislation that has historically failed is a byproduct of the 2020 election, when Democrats swept the White House and U.S. Congress but Republicans maintained control of the Texas House, said James Henson, head of the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas at Austin.
Proponents of what Republicans call “constitutional carry” argued that Texas should follow the lead of at least 20 other states with similar laws on the books.
The current pressure on Republican incumbents to fend off a potential primary challenge in 2022 is “much more immediate than the kind of pressures they felt from an increasingly organized gun safety movement that doesn’t have much of a presence or exert much force in Republican politics,” Henson said.
A solid majority of Texas voters don't think permitless carry should be allowed, according to the May University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll.
El Paso lawmakers hopeful
El Paso lawmakers are notching as a “rare win” the passage of the “lie and try” bill that would make it a crime in Texas to lie on a background check form to illegally buy a gun. The action is already illegal under federal law, but the cases are rarely prosecuted.
“We have accomplished something in an environment where we have never passed gun safety measures,” Moody said. “While some, including myself, will be critical that there were other things we could have fixed … because of the culture in Texas politics around weapons, it’s going to take time.”
Three-fourths of the state’s voters believe Texas should require criminal and mental background checks before any gun sales, including those at gun shows and private transactions, according to the May UT/TT Poll. Only 18% oppose such checks.
Republican lawmakers from the Midland-Odessa region, where seven people were killed in a mass shooting four weeks after El Paso, took a different approach to gun violence prevention this session. A bill by Odessa Rep. Brooks Landgraf to establish the Texas Active Shooter Alert System sailed through the Capitol, never receiving a single negative vote. Landgraf said the system could have alerted community members to the gunman’s shooting rampage.
“For a large segment of Texans who want to help save lives and prevent mass violence while protecting the Second Amendment rights of law-abiding Texans, this is an avenue to do that,” Landgraf, who voted in support of permitless carry, said of his bill. “We found a way to thread a needle to actually get something done.”
El Paso lawmakers say they aren’t giving up.
“This was never about one session; this was about a constant call to action,” said Moody, who motioned for the House to adjourn the Legislative session in memory of El Paso shooting victims. “When another tragedy comes to another part of Texas, then more people will come to the conclusion that we have to do more. Whether that’s in 2021 or 2025, I’ll be there for that conversation.”
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This article was originally published on the Texas Tribune: https://www.texastribune.org/2021/06/04/texas-constitutional-carry-el-paso/