Texas House advances bill raising age for AR-15 rifle purchases

Gun Rights

A Texas House committee unexpectedly passed a bill on Monday that would raise the age to purchase assault-style weapons from 18 to 21.

The vote in the House Select Committee on Community Safety marks lawmakers’ biggest step yet to implement new gun safety measures after last year’s mass shooting at a Uvalde elementary school, though it is unlikely to become law. May 24 will mark one year since the massacre, which left 19 children and two teachers dead.

House Speaker Dade Phelan has said the measure does not have the votes to pass the House, and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who heads the Senate, has not allowed the upper chamber to consider similar legislation. But the committee vote, which happened on the last possible day, was a symbolic victory for gun safety advocates and Uvalde families. They had gathered at the Capitol on Monday to pressure lawmakers to act.

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The 8-5 committee vote also came just days after another mass shooting, in Allen, where at least eight people died. The lone gunman there also used an assault-style weapon, though he was older than 21.

LAST MONTH: Uvalde families forced to wait 13 hours for Texas House hearing on AR-15 changes

Republican Reps. Sam Harless of Spring and Justin Holland of Rockwall joined all six Democrats to advance the measure. The room — filled with gun safety advocates — erupted in cheers after the vote. Relatives of the Uvalde victims, sitting at the front, broke out in tears.

“Thank you so very much for hearing our outpour and our cries,” Berlinda Arreola, the step-grandmother of 10-year-old Amerie Jo Garza, said to the members who voted in favor of the legislation. “For those that didn’t, we know who you are, so we will vote correctly when that time comes.”

The Uvalde families have traveled to the state Capitol nearly every week for the past five months to beg lawmakers to advance the legislation. They say the measure could have saved their children because the Robb Elementary School gunman was 18 and had purchased his AR-15-style rifle just days after his birthday.

“Lexi, baby, you did it,” Kimberly Mata-Rubio tweeted alongside a photo of her 10-year-old daughter. “You’re so powerful. You’ve reached so many hearts.”

After the committee adjourned, the family members embraced each other in the hall outside and FaceTimed loved ones who couldn’t be there in person.

Three weeks before, the relatives waited for more than 13 hours in a nearby room to deliver emotional testimony on the legislation.

RELATED: Uvalde, Santa Fe families rally for gun safety bills on five-year anniversary of Parkland massacre

“Tess didn’t have a choice in life or death,” testified Veronica Mata, who lost her 10-year-old daughter. “But you, as leaders, have a choice of what my daughter’s life will be remembered for. Will she die in vain, or will her life save another child — maybe your child?”

House Bill 2744, authored by Rep. Tracy King of Uvalde, would ban Texans from selling, renting, leasing or giving assault-style rifles above .22 caliber to anyone under age 21. The gun must also be able to accept a detachable magazine.

The legislation includes exceptions for peace officers, military members and anyone who has been honorably discharged from the armed forces. It also includes a provision allowing temporary loans to Texans under 18 in some circumstances, including at sports shooting ranges and on hunting trips.

The National Rifle Association and other gun rights groups have opposed the legislation.

“We represent 18-, 19- and 20-year-olds who are not mass shooters,” Tara Mica, a regional lobbyist for the NRA, testified last month. “We defend the Constitution. Realistically, a raise-the-age bill is likely to be litigated and found unconstitutional.”

The “no” votes included Rep. Ryan Guillen, the Rio Grande City Republican who chairs the community safety committee, and Rep. Dustin Burrows, the Lubbock Republican who chairs the calendars committee, where the bill heads now. Burrows’ office would not say whether he plans to bring HB 2744 for a vote that could advance it to the full House.

The other opponents were GOP Reps. Mark Dorazio of San Antonio, Brooks Landgraf of Odessa and Ellen Troxclair of Austin.

State Sen. Roland Gutierrez, a San Antonio Democrat who represents Uvalde, has been pushing similar legislation in the upper chamber, but it hasn’t been scheduled for a hearing. Lt. Gov. Patrick has repeatedly shut Gutierrez down on the Senate floor when he has advocated for gun restrictions.

Texas Republican leaders have said any effort to curb gun access would infringe on Second Amendment rights.

Gutierrez held a news conference with the Uvalde families Monday morning, shortly after they rallied with more than 100 gun violence prevention advocates in the Capitol rotunda. The protesters held signs such as ​​“Don’t Just Pray” and ​​“Our Safety is Not Debatable” as they mourned the victims of the mass shooting in Allen this weekend.

“We cannot allow this to be the reality for our families and loved ones,” Gutierrez said of the latest massacre. “We are going to keep seeing more and more of these incidents until Republicans decide to listen to the will of the voters and pass common-sense gun legislation that keeps guns out of the hands of these killers.”

A gunman wielding what appeared to be an assault-style rifle killed eight people Saturday afternoon at Allen Premium Outlets, a mall in a suburb about 20 miles north of Dallas. He injured seven others, three of whom are in critical condition. The victims included children as young as 3.

That shooting occurred just about a week after sheriff’s deputies in San Jacinto County reported that a lone gunman armed with an AR-15-style weapon killed five people at his neighbors’ house.

Republicans expressed grief over the mall shooting, offering prayers and condolences to families who lost loved ones. They praised law enforcement for responding and killing the shooter quickly, but they did not address the weapon he used.

On Fox News on Sunday, Republican Gov. Greg Abbott blamed mental health issues for the horrors, saying shootings are happening both in blue states with strict gun laws and red states with easier access.

He said the Legislature is considering bills to increase penalties for people who possess guns illegally, but he did not express interest in any of the gun control measures that Democrats and advocates have championed over the past year.

“We are working to address that anger and violence by going to its root cause, which is addressing the mental health problems behind it,” Abbott said. “People want a quick solution. The long-term solution here is to address the mental health issue.”

Texas, which ranked worst in the nation for mental health care in a recent study, is funneling millions into mental health services this legislative session. 

Abbott and other politicians called for similar measures after a gunman killed 10 people at Santa Fe High School in 2018.

While family members from Uvalde and Santa Fe welcome the extra mental health funding, they say it’s not a solution that will prevent future mass shootings.

At the end of the day, “the common denominator here is an AR-15 in a public place,” said Manuel Rizo, who lost his 9-year-old niece, Jacklyn “Jackie” Cazares, in Uvalde.

​​“They don’t have any answers to this,” Rizo said. “They’re just going to ignore the facts, issue their thoughts and prayers, go through their checklist and hope that this goes away.”

cayla.harris@hearst.com

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