Can a Texas Democrat Get Elected on Gun Control?

Gun Rights

Given his often testy relationship with Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick, the leader of the upper house of the Texas Legislature, it’s understandable that Roland Gutierrez, a Democratic state senator, felt especially uncomfortable when he couldn’t control his emotions in Patrick’s presence. Days after the May 2022 mass shooting in Uvalde, which falls within Gutierrez’s sprawling district, the state senator found himself in Patrick’s office, pleading for at least some small step toward gun control. Gutierrez had recently signed a nondisclosure agreement that allowed him to view police body cam footage of what he could only describe as kids being “mutilated.” One image in particular, of a little girl whose face was shot off, being dragged out of a classroom, was seared into Gutierrez’s brain. The Democrat felt hopeless—but he was also livid. He wanted big, sweeping reforms to curb future gun violence. But he told the lieutenant governor he’d settle for something much smaller: a proposal to raise the minimum age to purchase certain semiautomatic weapons from 18 to 21. 

When Patrick flatly refused that request, Gutierrez realized that reminding his colleagues—at every opportunity—that the state had done little to prevent these children’s deaths was a futile act. Perhaps he could have more impact in Washington. “I am running for the Senate because we absolutely need an assault weapons ban in this nation,” Gutierrez recently told a group of about forty Democrats at a campaign event in Leander, north of Austin. “We are broken in this space and must demand real change on this issue.”

Gutierrez is one of nine Democrats vying for the party’s nomination to challenge Republican senator Ted Cruz in the November general election. More than any of his opponents in the primary, he has made gun control a central tenet of his campaign. Even if he loses, he says, he will never stop pushing for the legislative reforms demanded by Uvalde parents. “I will advocate for those people for the rest of my lives,” he said.

Making guns a central issue in a campaign wouldn’t be as big a risk for a national Democrat, but many in Texas have long believed it’s a toxic issue here. In 2014, Wendy Davis, a Democratic state senator challenging Greg Abbott for governor, posed for a photo with a shotgun and announced she supported an “open carry” law—which would have allowed Texans with handgun licenses to wear pistols on their hips while in public. Davis believed that backing gun rights was necessary to win a statewide election in Texas. (She lost her race by twenty percentage points and later said she regretted the position she took on guns.) Four years later, then-congressman Beto O’Rourke adopted a very different approach during his Senate run against Cruz, making gun control a central part of his campaign. He came closer than Davis, but then, during his 2020 presidential run, he doubled down on his position after the El Paso Walmart shooting in his congressional district. He called for a mandatory buyback of assault weapons, saying, “Hell, yes, we’re going to take your AR-15, your AK-47.” When O’Rourke ran for governor in 2022, Abbott hammered him for that position and cruised to a double-digit victory. 

You Might Like

Polls so far show that Gutierrez’s candidacy isn’t resonating with voters. He’s running as many as 38 percentage points behind Congressman Colin Allred, according to one recent survey, but it’s unclear how much his stance on guns factors into that. (Allred, for his part, has touted his work in passing bipartisan gun legislation and has otherwise remained vague in his policy proposals, supporting “common-sense safe storage laws.”) Historically, though, no matter which angle Democrats try to attack the issue from, they haven’t been successful. Why? Many Democrats blame the National Rifle Association and the power it exerts to prevent Republican lawmakers from supporting even minor gun regulations. Another factor, less discussed, is the dearth of Democratic voters who prioritize gun control over, say, the economy

Poll after poll finds that a commanding majority of registered voters in Texas support raising the minimum age of purchase for any type of firearm. Voters also support what are known as “red flag laws,” which authorize courts to determine whether certain individuals pose a danger to themselves or others and then prevent them from possessing firearms for a defined stretch of time. According to a University of Houston poll from January 2023, 76 percent of adult Texans said they supported raising the legal age to purchase any firearm from 18 to 21, while 83 percent said they supported red flag laws.

But overall public opinion doesn’t seem to sway Republican leaders, who are much more focused on the views of the 3 percent of Texans who decide Republican primary elections. After Uvalde, Abbott ignored some families’ calls to raise the age to purchase semiautomatic weapons from 18 to 21, claiming the Supreme Court had already ruled doing so “unconstitutional.” Turns out, the court decision Abbott was referencing was narrower than he implied, though such a policy in Texas likely would have faced legal blowback

The strength of opinions favoring restrictions fades over time after a massacre. According to a Texas Politics Project poll from June 2022, fielded weeks after the murders in Uvalde, 21 percent of registered voters who identified as Democrats said that gun violence was the most important issue facing the state, essentially even with political corruption, at 22 percent. Inflation and rising prices ranked distantly, at 9 percent, followed by abortion, at 7 percent. By December 2023, however, those numbers had flipped. Only 9 percent of Democrats said gun violence was the biggest problem facing Texas. Instead, voters prioritized political corruption (20 percent)—on the heels of the impeachment trial of Attorney General Ken Paxton—and inflation and rising prices (11 percent). 

Jim Henson, director of the Texas Politics Project, doubts anything could keep gun control at the forefront of voters’ minds. “I don’t want to tempt fate or be callous, but I think at this point it’s fair to ask: What will it take, given what we’re already seen?” he asked. “The Uvalde situation illustrated just how ready people are to look at other plausible explanations,” including the slow and timid response of the area’s law enforcement officers, potentially downplaying the issue of access to guns in voters’ minds.

Some Democratic voters who support gun control recognize that it may not be a winning issue statewide. At Gutierrez’s meet and greet in Leander, I spoke with 73-year-old Ken Chamberlain, a bespectacled retiree, who was still torn on whom to support between Gutierrez and Allred. He came to the event on a whim, he said, not having much else to do on a Wednesday night, and was open to hearing any sort of policy pitch. He told me he was familiar with Gutierrez, given his work after Uvalde, and wanted to hear what the Democrat had to say. “I do believe in the Second Amendment,” Chamberlain said, “but I don’t believe there’s a need for AR-15s.” Then he added a note of caution: “I just think it’s difficult to get that message out in redder parts of the state.”

Political operatives in both parties believe the gun issue is one on which Democrats can’t win statewide. “I worked in my first statewide election in 1972, and I’ve never, ever known when it has been a benefit to any candidate to say that they want to severely restrict or eliminate the right for people to purchase firearms,” said Steve Munisteri, the former chairman of the Republican Party of Texas and the leader of one of its main voter-registration efforts. 

Jeff Dalton, a North Texas political consultant who led Democratic state senator Royce West’s unsuccessful 2020 campaign for U.S. Senate, was only slightly less dubious about framing a campaign around gun control. “I think it can be one of the things they talk about, but it can’t be issue number one,” said Dalton. “And when they talk about it, they need to moderate their stance and be clear they support the Second Amendment and the right to responsible gun ownership.” When pushed for specifics on which “responsible” gun message might resonate with most Texans, Dalton expressed hope that most “practical” voters agree with partial limits on certain “powerful” firearms and making access to those weapons harder. 

Gutierrez has made a point to toe the line in this regard. In Leander, he emphasized how he, too, is a gun owner who supports the Second Amendment. But is that what voters will remember about his campaign? For a long time during his various statewide and presidential runs, O’Rourke was known primarily as a fiery candidate who would frequently drop an f-bomb on the trail but touted bipartisan bona fides. Then he made his rousing “hell, yes” comment at a Democratic presidential primary debate in Houston, which arguably changed the trajectory of his political career and led many to question whether he was too far left to win in Texas. “One of the questions candidates have to ask themselves is, Are you known by the electorate for just this one issue? Or do they know where you stand on other issues? With O’Rourke, he kind of got known for that comment on guns, and that specific issue defined his campaign,” said Derek Ryan, a Republican political consultant and data guru. “That’s how people identified him.” 

At the event in Leander, guns weren’t the only issue Gutierrez touched on, but they occupied the bulk of his nearly 32-minute speech. After opening with almost 13 minutes on Uvalde, Gutierrez discussed how he wanted to help codify the right to an abortion and elicited cheers when discussing his support for Medicare for All. But then he returned to guns to wrap his speech. He also thanked O’Rourke, who has not endorsed any candidate in this race, for getting Democrats closer than they’ve ever come in nearly three decades to winning a statewide election. It was an interesting closing message for the state senator, who is hoping to build off the 2018 success of O’Rourke while running on the issue that might have tanked him four years later. 

You Might Like

Articles You May Like

More than 2,000 people could be removed from Licking County voter rolls
Key results from Georgia runoff, Virginia and Oklahoma primaries
A Warning Label for Social Media Could Also Save Kids From Gun Violence
12 Gauge Christmas Tree Harvest!
Senate Democrats want to restore a Trump-era bump stock ban. The push failed.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *