Gun Control Had a Small Surprise Win After the Texas Mall Shooting. But Advocates Have Mixed Feelings

Gun Rights

Manuel Rizo found some hope this week—even though he has little faith that a Texas bill raising the minimum age to buy certain semi-automatic rifles will become law.

Gun control advocates celebrated an unexpected victory when a house committee approved a bill on a bipartisan 8-5 vote on May 8 that would raise the legal age to buy certain semi-automatic rifles from 18 to 21, days after a shooter in Allen, Texas killed eight people at an outdoor mall. “It took the Allen shooting to bring it out of the Public Safety Committee sadly, but that’s the truth,” Rizo says.

While the bill likely wouldn’t have prevented the Allen shooter from getting his gun, Rizo believes it could have saved the life of his 9-year-old niece, Jacklyn “Jackie” Cazares, who was killed last year in Uvalde by a gunman using an AR-15 style rifle bought days after he turned 18. “If it was a bill previous to the Uvalde massacre, Jacklyn would be with us today. It’s a fact,” Rizo says.

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While House Bill 2744 has little to no chance of passing into law through Texas’ conservative legislature, even incremental progress is unusual for supporters of gun safety measures in a state that has routinely loosened gun restrictions. “For us, it is a tremendous win—even getting this bill into a hearing was a huge win,” says Liz Hanks, head of the Texas chapter of Moms Demand Action, a national group focused on reducing gun violence.

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Still, in the context of deep-red Texas and Allen marking the nation’s 199th mass shooting this year, feelings are mixed. “This win still makes me furious,” Hanks says. “This is the best we can hope for: a hearing, maybe a vote from a committee but not even a full house floor vote or moving it to the next chamber—and certainly not becoming law and actually saving any lives.”

Groups advocating for gun safety measures had been applying pressure to the Republican chairman of the committee for weeks to bring the bill up for a vote. They had little hope that he would. But pressure mounted Monday morning in the wake of the Allen shooting and as dozens of activists protested at the state capitol. (Monday marked the last day that the legislature could vote on this bill; it needed to make it out of committee by then to continue through the legislative process.) The bill now needs to make it through a calendars committee and win a vote on the house floor this week in order to head to the Senate.

The Texas legislature often doesn’t even bring up gun safety bills or listen to testimony, says Nicole Golden, executive director of Texas Gun Sense, a nonpartisan gun violence prevention advocacy organization. After years of being stymied, she also sees Monday’s development as “huge,” despite the limited hope of passage. “That’s the way you have to work—incrementally—and celebrate every achievement, big or small,” Golden says. “It shows the power of advocacy—that our voices matter here in this building, still— and that pressure can work if you just keep applying it.”

Two Republican state lawmakers on the committee joined Democrats in voting for its passage: Sam Harless of Spring and Justin Holland of Rockwall. Holland said in a statement that testimony convinced him this law could “lessen the possibility that the weapon is misused while not undermining our fundamental right to keep and bear arms.” Holland also noted that he is rated highly from the National Rifle Association (NRA) and doesn’t believe in banning the sale or possession of these types of semi-automatic rifles.

Ron Hickman, chief of staff for Harless, said the lawmaker is declining any additional interview or statement requests on the bill. “It is not his intention to capitalize with media coverage on the misery and suffering of those who have lost loved ones in these tragedies for simply voting his heart, his conscience, and his district,” Hickman said in an email.

With few expecting many other Republicans to join with Hickman and Holland, Rizo doesn’t think the bill will make it to the Senate, let alone to the Governor’s desk. (Texas Governor Greg Abbott has previously said the measure would be “unconstitutional.”) But Rizo also didn’t think it would make it through the house committee. “The impossible is still possible,” he says.

Sometimes Rizo asks himself why he keeps advocating for gun safety measures, even when there’s little chance they will pass. He recalls a conversation with his brother. “He said, brother, why do we do what we do? It’s more than just justice for Jackie. We’re here for a short period of time. When we die, whenever that may be, I would hope to see Jackie receiving us and saying: thank you for not giving up.”

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