New Texas House committee debates gun-free zones, magazine sales

Gun Rights

A new state House committee on firearm legislation had its inaugural meeting this week, debating a range of gun bills for the first time since last year’s massacre at a Uvalde elementary school.

During a six-hour hearing, Second Amendment and gun control advocates sparred over a bill that would allow election judges to carry handguns at polling places and another that would relax gun reporting requirements for foster parents. Committee members also heard testimony on a measure that would restrict magazine sales and one that would crack down on straw purchases.

Lawmakers considered 21 bills in the meeting, but they haven’t taken any votes yet. Here’s what was discussed:

Gun-free zones and legal carry

A bill filed by Rep. Jared Patterson, R-Frisco, would allow presiding election judges to carry handguns at most polling places on Election Day and during early voting. The bill makes some exceptions for polling locations at higher education institutions and other private properties but not public schools. 

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National Rifle Association Texas State Director Tara Mica said allowing election judges to carry handguns increases safety for voters. 

“My polling place is in a local grocery store, so for two to three weeks every two years that is a prohibited location,” Mica said, referring to a temporary ban on carrying guns in that location during voting. “I would feel better if election judges were able to carry in a prohibited location such as that for the safety of myself and fellow grocery shoppers.”

The bill received pushback from gun safety advocates like Katya Ehresman, the voting rights program manager at Common Cause Texas. She said the legislation would make some voters and poll workers feel unsafe.

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“Texas has endured a period of increasing political violence and intimidation, especially against election workers,” Ehresman said. “HB 636 would create confusion amid existing state and federal laws and increase intimidation.”

Another bill filed by Rep. Cole Hefner, R-Mt. Pleasner, would clarify a law that prohibits people from carrying firearms on school grounds and around school-sponsored activities. The existing language is so vague, Hefner said, that it could be applied to any place where students are gathering off campus, like at a public library or on a field trip.

“A law-abiding citizen could be already present and legally carrying a firearm at one moment — in the state Capitol, for instance — and then could, hypothetically, be subject to a third-degree felony charge as soon as a group of students shows up to that location,” Hefner said.

Reporting mandates

Rep. Cody Harris, R-Palestine, proposed a bill that would stop state agencies from requiring potential foster parents to disclose the number of and types of weapons and ammunition in their home.

“While well-intentioned, some of the information required for disclosure … is unnecessary and actually causes would-be foster parents to abandon the licensing process altogether,” Harris said.  

Rep. Jarvis Johnson, D-Houston and vice chair of the committee, said the bill raises legal questions over state liability for children injured by weapons in the home.

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“Don’t we have a certain level of accountability as a state — as we’re paying parents to care for the children — to know, so that we can protect the children?” Johnson said.

The bill would still require families to report the presence of weapons in the home and would not change storage requirements, Harris said.

Criminal offenses

Rep. Ryan Guillen, R-Rio Grande City and chair of the committee, introduced a bill that would create a criminal offense for straw purchases. That’s when an individual buys a firearm for someone who is not allowed to possess the weapon. Straw purchases are currently illegal under federal law, but not under Texas state law.

“When it comes to straw purchases in particular, the average gun owner in Texas really isn’t the problem,” said Nicole Golden, the executive director of the nonprofit Texas Gun Sense. “The problem is a small subset of individuals who are allowing those with documented violent histories to obtain firearms and harm our children and communities.”

Purchasing requirements

Rep. Joe Moody, D-El Paso, is proposing a bill that would prevent minors and anyone else who is not legally able to purchase a weapon from buying certain firearm magazines. Gun rights advocates oppose the bill.

Edwin Walker, a Houston criminal defense attorney, stressed that current law bars some people from buying firearms, not from possessing them. Prohibiting Texans from purchasing magazines may prevent them from using weapons they can lawfully own, he said.

“I believe that this is ultimately the step towards the ultimate goal of many anti-gun legislators — to ultimately try to restrict or limit magazines,” Walker said. 

Victims’ compensation funds

Guillen introduced a resolution urging Congress to ensure the survivors and families of victims of the 2017 church shooting in Sutherland Springs mass shooting receive court-ordered compensation.

The U.S. Department of Justice is appealing a verdict awarding $230 million to the survivors and families of victims of the shooting, which killed 26 people and injured 22 more. The department has denied that they were primarily responsible by not entering the gunman, who had been discharged from the Air Force after a felony conviction, into a national database that would have prevented him from legally buying a gun.

Tori Duff is a senior studying journalism at the University of Texas at Austin and the news editor of its student paper, The Daily Texan.

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