Uvalde shooting may spur action in Texas Legislature

Gun Rights

SAN ANTONIO — More than seven months after a teenage gunman killed 21 people at Robb Elementary School, the speaker of the Texas House was in Uvalde for a private meeting with relatives of the victims.

Dade Phelan had never met them. After the introductions in a room at the local community college, a family member started with the group’s main question: Will the Legislature raise the minimum age to purchase an assault-style weapon from 18 to 21?

Phelan was up front with them: No.

The House doesn’t have the votes, he said. And no, he doesn’t personally support it, either.

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The tense discussion on Jan. 4 lasted just shy of an hour and a half, and Phelan spent most of it discussing potential mental health legislation, participants said. The families left discouraged, unsure of their next steps in a state where Republicans, most of whom oppose any firearm restrictions, control the Legislature.

It marked an awkward transition for the Uvalde activists, who have spent months advocating for gun control laws. They felt welcomed and heard on lobbying trips to Washington, D.C., and several of them campaigned heartily for Democratic gubernatorial candidate Beto O’Rourke, who lost his challenge to Gov. Greg Abbott on Nov. 8.

READ MORE: In Washington to make case for gun control, Uvalde families met people who know their pain

Phelan was one of the few lawmakers to address the Uvalde shooting when the legislative session began Tuesday, promising “sensible, meaningful change.” Republican leaders have focused on bolstering mental health resources and improving the physical defenses of schools — both of which have bipartisan support as the session starts.

But the prospects for any gun regulations in Texas are dim, leaving the Uvalde families convinced that the next mass shooting is only a question of time.

“I just feel like we’re in new territory,” said Kim Rubio, who lost her 10-year-old daughter, Lexi, at Robb Elementary School. “When this happened, there was a lot of talk at the federal level about making changes, so we really hit the ground running toward that. Now, we’re back at square one.”

Raising the age limit for gun purchases is their top priority. The families also want to mandate robust active shooter training for law enforcement and hold the Texas Department of Public Safety, along with other law enforcement agencies, accountable for their botched response to the May 24 shooting.

“I can’t make sure it’s never going to happen again. The next shooter is already walking into classrooms,” said state Sen. Charles Perry, R-Lubbock. “When our colleagues say we can make a law that will prevent this from happening, they’re either naive, or they’re unfamiliar with how people work, because we will never be able to prevent someone from trying. Our job as policymakers is when someone does try — and there will be another one — that they’re not successful.”

There is “no appetite” for gun restrictions in the Senate, Perry said. Those proposals would infringe on the Second Amendment and unfairly impact law-abiding gun owners who want to hunt or protect their families from criminals, he added.

RELATED: Abbott tells Uvalde families Texas can’t raise age to buy an AR-15. Legal experts disagree.

Phelan said he met with the Uvalde families “to not only provide transparency into what happened that day and answers about what comes next, but to listen to their concerns about gun safety, school security and mental health and to answer any questions they had about the legislative process as it relates to these matters.”

When they’ve advocated for change in Washington, the Uvalde families have been supported by nonprofit gun violence prevention groups and members of Congress who have worked for years to restrict firearm sales.

But few Texas lawmakers, Republican or Democrat, have reached out to them so far.

After the first Christmas since their loss — and after listening to New Year’s Eve fireworks that reminded them of gunshots — they want to regain momentum. The meeting with Phelan was the first of many they hope to arrange.

“In Texas, we do not get a lot of support in anything we are asking for,” said Nikki Cross, who lost her 10-year-old son, Uziyah Garcia, in the shooting. “We are really asking for the bare minimum to raise an age limit from 18 to 21. … I personally feel way more supported in D.C. than in my own state on this issue.”

Jeremy Trevino, 10, listens to speakers during the Raise Our Voices to Raise the Age March for Our Lives Rally at the Texas State Capitol in Austin, Texas, Saturday, Aug. 27, 2022.

Jeremy Trevino, 10, listens to speakers during the Raise Our Voices to Raise the Age March for Our Lives Rally at the Texas State Capitol in Austin, Texas, Saturday, Aug. 27, 2022.

Sam Owens, San Antonio Express-News / Staff photographer

Finding a strategy

State Sen. Roland Gutierrez, a San Antonio Democrat who represents Uvalde, is on a mission to change his colleagues’ minds. Over the next few weeks, he’ll push them to look at DPS footage taken inside classrooms 111 and 112 on the day of the shooting.

He signed a nondisclosure agreement with the agency so he could review the videos late last year, and the image of dead children piled atop one another still haunts him.

Fewer than 10 lawmakers have signed the agreement, Gutierrez said. It’s a bipartisan group that includes Sens. Royce West, Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa and Paul Bettencourt and Reps. Dustin Burrows and Tracy King, the Austin American-Statesman reported last month. The DPS did not respond to a request for comment.

BACKGROUND: Release of school shooting records would compromise investigations, Uvalde DA says

The offer is on the table for all 181 members of the Legislature, Gutierrez said. He believes viewing the footage might convince some to vote to raise the age limit. The gunman at Robb had bought his rifle days after his 18th birthday.

It’s a complicated prospect for the families, who must decide whether the potential support is worth reliving the trauma of that day and sharing it with others.

“When they do get to see this type of footage, it’s very personal,” Cross said. “But if these are the people in power, and the people that can make the changes, I would like them to sign the NDA and look at it, if that is what it is going to take.”

On a larger scale, Rubio knows the families must change their strategy as they appeal to Texas lawmakers. In Washington, they pushed for floor votes on gun bills, if only to hold representatives accountable and drum up Democratic support ahead of a competitive and well-funded November election.

There’s a smaller Democratic audience in Texas, she said — and also the possibility that conservatives would cheer their representatives for voting against gun restrictions. The families have been disappointed by the politics of their own neighbors, for that matter. Uvalde County has voted Republican for years and went for Abbott again in November.

IN DEPTH: Uvalde shooting spawned a lot of activism — then it splintered

Rubio hopes to focus less on lobbying legislative leaders and more on reaching out to communities who may not understand how dangerous assault-style weapons can be in the wrong hands. It’s a sentiment shared by many of the family members, who have spent months grappling with the same question: How do they get people to care about this?

“Before this, I was just a regular stay-at-home mom,” Cross said. “I didn’t worry about politics or gun laws. I kind of settled into being complacent in what takes place in Texas — and unfortunately, my son paid that price, and I just don’t want anybody else’s son to pay that price.”

Gutierrez met with the Uvalde families Thursday evening to strategize and consider how to approach legislators this session. Some relatives have discussed bringing in a third party to advocate on their behalf, but many of them plan to travel to Austin and speak with lawmakers directly.

“Make a change, even a baby step,” said Berlinda Arreola, the grandmother of Amerie Jo Garza, 10, who died in the massacre. “We are not giving up. We are not done.”

Phelan said he won’t stop members from voting on the raise-the-age bill if it makes it to the floor, but Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, the conservative head of the Senate, hasn’t made the same promise. In any case, the legislation would need to garner enough votes in committees before heading to the full House or Senate.

LEGISLATIVE HEARINGS: 17-year-old sister of Uvalde shooting victim begs Texas Republicans to pass gun safety laws

“The House will have a thorough debate on this topic during the 88th Legislature,” Phelan said in a statement. “Members will have every opportunity to discuss this issue, among many others, because we share the common goal of doing everything we can to ensure a tragedy like this never happens again.”

Gutierrez plans to discuss the issue with Patrick in the coming weeks, and he’ll also ask the lieutenant governor to meet with the Uvalde families. Steven Aranyi, a spokesman for Patrick, said the lieutenant governor “will meet with the families any time.”

Sen. Roland Gutierrez meets with families impacted by the Robb Elementary massacre in Uvalde, Texas, Thursday, Jan. 12, 2023, to discuss plans for the legislative session that kicked off last Tuesday.

Sen. Roland Gutierrez meets with families impacted by the Robb Elementary massacre in Uvalde, Texas, Thursday, Jan. 12, 2023, to discuss plans for the legislative session that kicked off last Tuesday.

Sam Owens/Staff photographer

‘Texas will be leading’

For most Texas Republicans, firearm limitations are a nonstarter.

In 2021, the Legislature passed the so-called “permitless carry” bill that allows most Texans age 21 and up to carry a handgun in public without a license or training. The National Rifle Association called the session “groundbreaking” for gun owners, and Gov. Greg Abbott said the bill was “the strongest Second Amendment legislation in Texas history.”

After mass shootings in El Paso and Midland-Odessa in 2019, Abbott recommended passing the so-called “red flag” laws that allow courts to temporarily remove firearms from people deemed a danger to themselves or others. Patrick also bucked the NRA in advocating for background checks on stranger-to-stranger gun sales.

Facing backlash from gun rights activists, their support for these proposals faded quickly. Neither has suggested revisiting them this session.

LOOK BACK: 2021 was a study in how Texas Republicans quash gun control proposals after mass shootings

The Senate Committee to Protect All Texans, created after the Uvalde shooting last year, released a list of recommendations in December that includes just one firearms change — creating a state penalty for straw purchases, the acquisition of guns by a third party for an individual who is prohibited from doing so.

Straw purchasing is already illegal and punishable by up to 10 years in prison under federal law, but senators recommend that Texas make it a state crime.

Broader discussions about school safety are already underway. Perry, the Lubbock Republican, has introduced a bill that would require additional intervention for students exhibiting disruptive behavior in the classroom and provide more students with access to virtual mental health services.

“It’s easy to go after the gun,” Perry said. “It’s easy to go after the unlocked door. All of those considerations are part of a conversation that reflects a bigger picture. School discipline, if we get that right — those kids can probably get to a better place for help, and then we can talk about our mental health for adolescents. We have a very limited pipeline for kids that are 17 and under.”

After the Santa Fe High School shooting in 2018, the Legislature passed a sweeping school safety package that, in part, intended to beef up mental health programs in schools. But with a nearly $33 billion revenue surplus this year, lawmakers have more financial flexibility to add to existing resources, said state Sen. Brandon Creighton, R-Conroe.

TRYING AGAIN: After Uvalde massacre, Texas GOP leaders double down on the same fixes they tried after Santa Fe

Creighton also plans to prioritize modernizing old school buildings across the state’s 8,000 campuses. His proposals include putting panic buttons on teachers’ ID lanyards, ensuring school doors have sensors to detect if they’re properly closed and giving front desk administrators ways to remotely double-lock doors to keep intruders out.

“I can’t imagine a higher priority for us this session than making sure our schools are safer,” Creighton said. “There are going to be some that are very encouraged by what we accomplish. There are going to be others that probably feel, at the end of session, there’s unfinished business … but I think Texas will be leading on making public schools safer by this summer.”

The families understand there are many pieces to the puzzle that led to the tragedy at Robb Elementary School — truancy, mental health, unlocked doors, a failed police response. But for many of them, it all connects to guns.

“If the age was raised from 18 to 21, that would have given (the shooter) three extra years to get help for his mental health problem,” said Ana Rodriguez, who lost her 10-year-old daughter, Maite, on May 24. “Who knows? He might have gotten helped. Someone might have noticed something. I’m willing to gamble on those three years.”

cayla.harris@express-news.net

claire.bryan@express-news.net

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