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After Atlanta And Colorado Mass Shootings, Texas GOP Leaders Double Down On Protecting Gun Owners

Different guns lay on glass shelves in a store.
Callie Richmond For The Texas Tribune
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The renewed commitment from Republican leaders to protect gun owners comes as the first Texas legislative session is underway since 2019’s mass shootings in El Paso and Midland-Odessa.

Texas' Republican leaders are responding to the recent back-to-back mass shootings in Georgia and Colorado with commitments to protect gun ownership in the state.

They’re doubling down against President Joe Biden and Congressional Democrats who are pushing for stronger gun laws, including an assault weapons ban, after eight people were killed in Atlanta last week and 10 more in Boulder this week.

"They are gonna come to get your guns," said Gov. Greg Abbott, speaking at a Texas Young Republicans dinner in the Austin area on Tuesday evening, just a day after a gunman went on a rampage in a Colorado grocery store.

The renewed commitment from GOP leaders to protect gun owners comes as the first Texas legislative session is underway since 2019’s mass shootings in El Paso and Midland-Odessa, where a total of 30 people were killed and 50 more were injured. After the 2019 massacres, Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick struck a softer tone regarding gun control legislation, hinting at potential common ground with Democrats as they raised concerns about state laws allowing private gun sales between strangers without background checks.

At the dinner, Abbott said there is an even greater urgency this legislative session to pass laws expanding gun rights because of Biden’s presidency.

"Yes, what Beto said turned out to be true," Abbott said, in a reference to the former El Paso Congressman Beto O'Rourke’s comment during his bid for president that, "Hell, yes," he wanted to take away people's AR-15s and AK-47s.

"All I've gotta say to Beto is, 'Hell no, Beto, you're not gonna come get our guns in the Lone Star State,'" Abbott said.

The political winds have completely shifted since the Texas shootings, and Democrats now control Congress and the Oval Office. Biden, a longtime supporter of gun control laws, reinvigorated the decadeslong battle surrounding federal gun laws this week when he called for an assault weapons ban and stronger background checks for gun purchases.

“This is not and should not be a partisan issue — it is an American issue,” Biden said Tuesday. “We have to act.”

Republican U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz was quick to push back on Democrats.

“Every time there is a shooting, we play this ridiculous theater where this committee gets together and proposes a bunch of laws that would do nothing to stop these murders,” Cruz said Tuesday during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on gun violence. His comments quickly drew criticism from prominent gun control advocates.

“After sixteen people were killed in a hot air balloon in Lockhart, Texas, Ted Cruz authored and passed federal legislation improving safety rules,” tweeted Shannon Watts, founder of Moms Demand Action. “I guess that's not because laws don't work, but because there's no hot air balloon lobby funding his Senate seat.”

Cruz’s spokesperson said in a statement Wednesday, “It is clear from their rhetoric Democrats aren’t interested in actual solutions. They just want to take guns away from law abiding citizens while making Americans less safe.”

State Rep. César Blanco, D-El Paso, who has advocated for stronger gun laws in the state after the massacre at a Walmart in his city, fired back at Cruz.

“I quite frankly don't need to hear anything from Sen. Cruz. He has said enough. I think his actions or inaction speak louder than words,” Blanco said in an interview. “He chalked it up to theater when people are looking for real solutions to save lives. I think that hurts people.”

Texas Republican lawmakers have been key opponents of attempts to revive a federal ban on assault weapons that was passed in 1994 and expired in 2004. Cruz led the fight against an effort to reintroduce an assault weapons ban in 2012 following the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut.

Critics point to studies that say the original ban had little effect on overall criminal activity and firearm homicides. However, gun control advocates say there is evidence that suggests the legislation was successful at decreasing the number of mass shootings in the nation.

Now Abbott and GOP state lawmakers are laying a groundwork to block Texas from federal gun regulation through legislation that could make Texas a “Second Amendment sanctuary state,” prohibiting state agencies and local governments from enforcing new federal gun laws or rules.

“We need to erect a complete barrier against any government official anywhere from treading on gun rights in Texas," Abbott said during his annual State of the State address in February.

Abbott did not respond to a request for comment.

Dozens of gun measures have been filed on both sides of the aisle this year, including a slate of bills by El Paso’s statehouse delegation aimed at preventing future mass shootings by restricting assault weapons and keeping guns out of the hands of people who should not possess them, among other changes.

As of Wednesday, none of the at least seven “Second Amendment sanctuary state” bills had been scheduled for a committee hearing.

Other proposals would make it easier for Texans to carry guns. On Thursday in the House Homeland Security and Public Safety Committee, lawmakers will consider a group of controversial bills that would allow Texans to carry handguns — openly or concealed — without a permit.

Despite growing support in recent years from both Republican and Democrat voters for stricter gun control measures, state and federal lawmakers remain split along party lines.

In the February 2020 University of Texas/Texas Tribune poll, 61% of Texans strongly supported background checks on all gun purchases, while only 15% either somewhat or strongly opposed such a measure. Texas Democrats were the most supportive, with 91% of those polled saying they strongly or somewhat supported the measures, along with 68% of Republicans.

That Texas would consider loosening gun laws in light of the recent shootings is “disturbing,” “insensitive and operates in its own reality,” said Ed Scruggs, spokesperson and board member for Texas Gun Sense, a group that advocates for gun control.

“But then again, I'm not really surprised, because that seems to be what our Legislature does in times of gun violence,” Scruggs said.

Meanwhile, gun rights groups are applauding Abbott's efforts to defend Texas from what they see as federal attacks on gun ownership and possession.

"The Biden administration has declared war on the entire law-abiding shooting community," said Andi Turner, legislative director for the Texas State Rifle Association. "I am very proud of our governor and the steps he is taking to protect law-abiding gun owners."

Blanco said he’s optimistic this session that lawmakers can pass stricter gun rules, especially with support from federal leaders and growing bipartisan support from voters.

“It's important for our community to let folks know that communities like El Paso and Boulder and others that we've not forgotten about these tragedies and that we're actively working towards solutions,” he said.

For state lawmakers from El Paso, Blanco said the shootings hit close to home.

“Every time I see another mass shooting my heart breaks, and I can't help recall all the feelings of the deep sadness and the frustration and the confusion that I felt and my fellow El Pasoans felt,” Blanco said. “Atlanta and Boulder are feeling the same thing.”

Patrick Svitek contributed reporting.

The Texas Tribune provided this story.