On August 3, 2019, a white gunman was accused of opening fire in a busy Walmart in El Paso after driving hundreds of miles there from North Texas. According to police and an online screed attributed to the 21-year-old shooter, he was targeting Mexicans. Twenty-three people died in the mass shooting, which became the deadliest attack on Latinos in modern U.S. history.
That day, César Blanco, a Democratic state lawmaker, talked with families gathered in the cafeteria of the elementary school he’d attended as a child, who were waiting to find out if their loved ones had been killed.
“I attended nearly every funeral and memorial after the El Paso mass shooting, and I mourned with those families and my communities and listened to their stories and just really committed myself to finding solutions,” he said.
Less than a month later, a gunman drove around Odessa, firing random shots. He killed seven people in the attack, which took place over the course of an hour.
“You know, everybody seems to have the same reaction that this could never happen in my community, this could never happen in my town, and this could never happen to somebody I know. And in an instant, all of those thoughts turned out to not be true,” said Rep. Brooks Landgraf, an Odessa Republican. “We wanted to provide some sort of solution that could help to save lives in the future.”
The back-to-back mass shootings created a unique moment where it seemed like lawmakers might find some common ground, particularly on private gun sales. The Odessa gunman bought a weapon through a private sale after failing a traditional background check.
“I’m a strong NRA supporter and they’re a strong supporter of mine, but I believe they’re wrong in not expanding background checks to stopping strangers from selling guns to strangers,” Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick told Fox News, less than a week after the Odessa attack.
Gov. Greg Abbott also expressed concern about these types of sales.
Many of the state’s Democratic lawmakers wanted bigger change, and urged Abbott to immediately call a special legislative session. Democratic Rep. Mary González, whose district includes part of El Paso County, said the targeted nature of the El Paso massacre created a special sense of urgency.
“There’s a normalization of mass shootings and gun violence,” she told KERA News at the time. “At some point we have to say that waiting two years is too long of a time to interrupt the culture that is really growing — whether it’s domestic terrorism, racism, white supremacy — and that is manifesting itself in gun violence.”
Roundtables, Recommendations And A Promise For Change
Abbott declined to call a special session, instead forming the bipartisan Texas Safety Commission, which held roundtables on mass violence.
He issued eight executive orders in response to the shootings, mostly focused on strengthening reporting channels when members of the public or law enforcement are concerned that a person might commit violence.
“In the aftermath of both shootings, officials learned that the mother of the El Paso gunman had expressed concerns to law enforcement about her son. In Odessa, the killer had called both local and federal authorities prior to his shooting spree,” the governor’s office said in a statement announcing the orders.
Abbot also released the Texas Safety Action Report, based on the commission’s discussions, which included concrete recommendations for the next legislative session.
The state House and Senate also formed special committees that started holding public hearings across the state, including in El Paso and Odessa, with a similar goal in mind.
“At this point we’ve been listening,” then-Sen. José Rodríguez, an El Paso Democrat, told KERA News at the time. “But there will come a time when we’ll start deliberating in terms of coming up with a report and recommendations.”
That time never came — the coronavirus pandemic halted the committees’ work before they could release reports or recommendations.
Still, when lawmakers convened in January, Sen. Blanco was optimistic. They had the governor’s recommendations.
“I thought that those should be the starting point for any legislation since they were recommendations from a bipartisan commission. So I filed six bills pulled directly from the report because we promised solutions,” Blanco said.
All told, the El Paso delegation put forward nearly 20 bills focused on gun safety and mass violence prevention, including one proposal that would ban open carry of assault weapons and long guns, and another that would require background checks for private firearm sales.
Very few of those bills gained any traction.
By far the most substantial gun bill to cross Gov. Abbott’s desk loosens firearm restrictions. House Bill 1927 allows Texans to carry handguns without a license, and the training and background check that license requires.
“It’s in complete contradiction with what we heard in those committees and those roundtables,” Blanco said.
Just before the bill passed, El Paso Rep. Joe Moody addressed his colleagues on the floor of the House. He described sitting in that schoolroom with Blanco and Gov. Abbott on Aug. 3, talking with those families who were waiting for word on their loved ones.
“That’s the room I sat in on that day. None of you shared that experience … You know what else I shared? What room I shared? The room days after that where I was promised that we would take gun seriously in that state.”
Moody said he knew he couldn’t prevent the bill from passing, but “I couldn’t stop tonight without sharing my disappointment knowing what I heard in those — when the doors were closed I heard lots of promises. I haven’t heard them since.”
A Shift In Legislative Priorities
Even in the immediate aftermath of the 2019 shootings, there were doubts state leaders would actually back any changes when it came to firearms.
“Critics were pretty quick to point out that while people were making verbal commitments to some of these things, or at least expressing interest, there was no real action at the time,” said James Henson with the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas at Austin.
“That was probably a foreshadowing of what we saw when it came time that legislators and the state’s political leaders could actually do something, in which they did very little and in fact did the opposite.”
There were unforeseen forces that shifted legislative priorities this session, including the coronavirus pandemic, February’s winter storm, and the failure of the state’s electric grid.
But Henson said the 2020 elections also had a major impact on the session.
“The shooting in 2019 and the political discussion came at a moment when Republicans were not as confident as they had been of their position in the state because of the gains Democrats made in 2018 and the signs that the state was becoming more competitive,” he said.
Ultimately, Texas didn’t swing blue in 2020.
Now lawmakers are “looking forward to an election in 2022 in which the worry, the primary focus of most Republican incumbents is not the general election where there’s a big difference between gun safety versus the gun rights lobby. They’re looking at the 2022 primaries where they have to be thinking about what the most conservative wing of the party thinks, because these are the people that drive primary elections,” Henson said.
He believes this explains why Republican lawmakers pushed permitless carry, despite recent polling from the University of Texas/Texas Tribune that found nearly 60% of Texans oppose the measure. The bill also faced opposition from law enforcement groups, who said the measure would make their jobs more dangerous.
While permitless carry has received the most attention this session, several other bills made it out of the session that loosen gun restrictions, including a bill that allows gun owners to bring handguns and ammunition into their hotel rooms, and another that lets school marshals carry guns rather than keeping them locked up and secured, as long as they have school board approval.
The legislature also passed a bill allowing firearm retailers to remain open during a declared disaster or emergency.
Mixed Results On Bills Addressing Mass Shootings
Meanwhile, most bills filed in response to the 2019 mass shootings didn’t get very far.
“We did get some incremental change but frankly, not enough,” Sen. Blanco said.
Of the six bills Blanco filed based on the governor’s Texas Safety Action Report, only one passed.
Known as the “lie and try” bill, the measure makes it a state crime to lie on a background check in order to illegally purchase a gun. This is already a federal crime. Federal prosecutors rarely go after these cases, but now, state prosecutors can.
Blanco sees the legislation as a major achievement.
“It’s a big deal that a gun safety bill passed through the Texas legislature,” he said.
Lawmakers only approved two other proposals meant to address mass shootings, neither of which limit gun access.
Blanco filed successful legislation requiring Texas schools to use best practices when conducting active shooter drills, so they’re less harmful to students’ mental health.
The other successful bill comes from Odessa Republican Brooks Landgraf. After the shooting there, he wanted to avoid what he’s seen so many times.
“You know, you have one side that doesn’t want to do anything. You have another side that wants to take firearms away, for example. And by retreating to respective political corners, nothing ever really gets done,” Landgraf said.
Almost immediately after the shooting, people started asking why they didn’t get alerts on their phones; the spree lasted more than an hour.
“If we had gotten some sort of official communication or an alert, maybe lives could have been saved,” Landgraf said.
He filed successful legislation creating a statewide active shooter alert system. Now, Texans within 50 miles of an active shooter will receive a notification.
The bill is known as the Leilah Hernandez Act, named after the youngest victim of the attack. Landgraf worked on the legislation with her mother.
Landgraf, who voted in support of permitless carry, noted that he is a conservative Republican from a “very, very conservative district,” a different landscape than El Paso.
He felt confident this alert system bill — focused on mitigating “the danger and the harm that can be done through mass violence while also being respectful of the constitutional rights of law-abiding Texans” — could make it through the legislature.
“I don’t pretend for a moment that this is all anybody ever wanted as a result of these horrific acts of mass violence, but I do believe that it is a way to move the needle on this issue and actually do something that can save lives,” he said.
It is a bipartisan bill that doesn’t change any gun laws in the state. For now, it seems, that’s the kind of measure that can pass.
Even legislation that doesn’t specifically target guns isn’t guaranteed to pass.
Rep. Mary González, the Democrat whose district includes part of El Paso, filed a digital citizenship bill this session that would have required Texas middle schools to teach students about identifying hate speech, racism, and discrimination online, as a way to prevent online radicalization.
The El Paso gunman posted an anti-immigrant screed just before carrying out the attack.
Her bill passed the Texas House, but didn’t make it out of the Senate.
Jim Henson with the Texas Politics Project said there is often a sense after mass shootings that this time, something will change. That felt especially true after the massacre in El Paso, which targeted Latinos. Yet these attacks don’t always shift people’s core beliefs about what will keep them safe.
Henson’s team polls Texans on a semi-regular basis about whether they would feel more safe, less safe, or it would make no difference if more people carried guns. Respondents remain divided on that issue, though a recent poll found most do support background checks.
“There’s a real fundamental difference in attitudes towards guns and personal safety and violence that are hard to change. It doesn’t seem that events really change those,” he said.
“If you’re somebody that thinks that there is an air of inevitability about gun violence and gun conflict and your sense of safety in society, and you think that by and large having individuals armed themselves is more safe than having them not be armed, it’s hard to move people off of that kind of fundamental belief.”
The measures that passed this session, Henson said, feel more like they’re about preparing for the next inevitable mass shooting, rather than trying to prevent it.
Mallory Falk is a corps member with Report For America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms. Got a tip? Email Mallory at Mfalk@kera.org. You can follow Mallory on Twitter @MalloryFalk.