UVALDE, Texas (Nexstar) — Following America’s second-deadliest school shooting in a small Texas town, grieving families and angry communities mourned, conversations about prevention turn political and people marched and protested to “do something.” Some of those calls turned into action while others were ignored.
A month after an 18-year-old gunman used an AR-15 to kill 19 children and two teachers at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Congress passed its first federal gun safety legislation in decades. The Safer Communities Act expands background checks in certain cases, closed the “boyfriend loophole” to prevent domestic abusers from getting or keeping firearms and clarifies the created penalties for straw purchases and those who don’t follow federal firearm licensing requirements. Additionally, the bipartisan package doled out grants to bolster mental health resources and to better secure schools.
Many longtime gun control activists saw it as small, but meaningful progress. Critics argued it could be overly restrictive of Second Amendment rights.
The efforts were led by Texas’ senior senator and one Texas House Republican was a yes vote. Both Republicans took political hits, but say they do not regret their efforts on the legislation.
U.S. Sen. John Cornyn said it was “absolutely” worth the pushback he received within his party, including notably getting booed by conservatives at the Texas GOP convention last June. In an interview with Nexstar last week, he noted impacts the legislation has had — such as 160 instances in which the FBI has identified people who have juvenile records that would disqualify them from purchasing firearms.
“I’m a firm believer in the Second Amendment, and I don’t think law-abiding citizens are a threat to public safety. But I think the one area of consensus is that people with mental health problems and people who have criminal records should not be able to access firearms,” he said.
Congressman Tony Gonzales, who represents Uvalde, also defends his vote despite getting censured by two county GOP parties in his district after the fact.
“Politically, it is always a concern because what often happens is things get spun one way or another. And it’s just part of being in politics,” Gonzales told Nexstar. “You should look beyond that, and go, ‘what is the right thing to do?'”
As for the possibility of furthering federal legislation gun reforms which cost Cornyn and Gonzales politically, the two Republicans expressed openness to expanding on policy so long as it protects communities but doesn’t infringe on the constitutional rights of others.
“While we’ve figured out how to investigate and prosecute and punish — and hopefully deter criminal acts — we haven’t figured out how to stop all of them. But I’m confident that the answer is not to deprive law-abiding gun owners of their constitutional right to keep and bear arms,” Cornyn said.
‘A hard fight’ from the start on Texas gun laws
Kim Rubio, whose daughter Alexandria “Lexi” Rubio was among the 19 children murdered in Uvalde, said her goal is to continue to honor Lexi’s life through political action. As someone who describes herself as previously “soft-spoken,” activism was never something Rubio imagined for herself. But she also never imagined losing her youngest daughter to a mass shooting.
“I was perfectly content with just being a mom of five children in a small town,” she said. “Now I think [Lexi] still has the potential for change. It just has to be through me.”
While Rubio was thankful for progress, she wants to see more restrictions around the types of weapons that killed her daughter and her classmates.
She said victims’ families from the Uvalde and 2018 Santa Fe shooting focused their legislative efforts on raising the age needed to purchase semi-automatic weapons from 18 to 21.
Rubio and other families regularly traveled to Austin to speak at rallies and press conferences and meet with lawmakers in hopes of getting action. Their efforts came to a climax earlier this month, when the House Community Safety Committee voted to advance the age limit bill with two Republicans voting in favor. Chairman Ryan Guillen initially did not plan to bring HB 2744 to a vote, but decided to do so in the wake of another Texas mass shooting in Allen.
“It’s a reminder that change is possible and that we’re changing hearts and I really needed that,” Rubio said.
Public opinion and Republican opposition
A May poll from the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas shows a majority of the state’s voters, 76%, support raising the age limit for purchasing any firearm from 18 to 21. Twenty percent oppose the idea, but most Texans polled from both parties back it — with 91% of Democrats and 64% of Republicans.
The House did not bring HB 2744 to the floor for debate before a key deadline.
From the start, Democratic state Sen. Roland Gutierrez, who represents Uvalde, knew his gun restriction proposals would be an uphill battle in the Republican-dominated Legislature. He introduced 21 bills, many centered around gun restrictions, which never got hearings in the Senate.
“They didn’t shatter any expectations, but I felt like we needed to have the discussion,” Gutierrez said.
Lawmakers could still make it law by attaching provisions of the bill as amendments to other legislation, but Democrats thus far have failed to gain support in attempts to do so with enough Republican support.
“The public needs to really understand what we’re allowing to do, by the failure of [not] having laws that keep these types of weapons away from young people, away from people that have mental illness. We really are broken here,” Gutierrez said.
Gov. Greg Abbott and other Republican leaders have said the proposal is unconstitutional, referencing a Texas federal court decision on a state law that previously banned 18 to 20 year olds from carrying handguns. U.S. District Judge Mark Pittman said the law was unconstitutional since the Second Amendment does not mention age limitations.
Gutierrez points to Republican states like Florida, which passed an age limit bill in the aftermath of the 2018 Parkland high school shooting — a law that has been upheld.
While gun restrictions are broadly out of the question for Republicans, GOP lawmakers have spent the session focused on bolstering school safety and mental health funding, as well as stricter requirements for active shooter plans and audits of Texas campuses.