A year after a high school mass shooting near Houston that remains one of the deadliest in U.S. history, Texas lawmakers are on the brink of going home without passing any new gun restrictions, or even tougher firearm storage laws that Gov. Greg Abbott backed after the tragedy.
A Republican governor pushing even a small restriction on firearms kept at home in gun-friendly Texas was a landmark shift after two decades of loosening weapons regulations. And it put Texas in line with other states exploring ways to prevent not just mass shootings, but thousands of lethal gun incidents involving minors.
But the state’s effort was met with a swift and severe rebuke from gun-rights advocates who have all but killed the issue. The anniversary of the shooting at Santa Fe High School is Friday.
“I saw my friend and co-worker killed,” Flo Rice, a Santa Fe substitute teacher who was shot five times that day, told lawmakers. “Had stricter gun laws been in place, maybe the shooter’s father would have had his guns locked up, 10 lives would have been spared … It is too late for Santa Fe, but maybe this bill will save other children’s lives.”
Her words had little impact. In the final two weeks of the legislative session, Texas lawmakers are instead moving toward arming more school personnel , boosting campus security measures and mental health services for teenagers. Those also were ideas from Abbott, who has gone silent on the issue of gun storage safety since first proposing it.
“It’s really sad,” said Ed Scruggs of Texas Gun Sense. “Here we are coming up on the one year anniversary and they’re not doing anything but putting more guns in schools and hardening school sites. And this was something that could have applied directly to a situation like Santa Fe.”
Police have alleged the Santa Fe shooter, a student at the school, used his father’s shotgun and handgun to kill eight students and two substitute teachers. Thirteen others were wounded.
Within days, Abbott held a series of roundtable discussions on school violence with victims and gun rights and gun control advocates. Ideas that emerged included increasing the penalty for gun owners – from a misdemeanor to a felony – when minors take and use their firearms to harm or kill someone. Texas has no requirement that all firearms be locked up.
The blowback was almost immediate.
Members of the Legislature’s “Freedom Caucus” vowed to oppose home gun storage regulations as government overreach on the right to bear arms. Gun rights groups insisted firearms must be kept easily available for self-defense.
“I will fight it forever,” Rep. Jonathan Stickland, a Republican, tweeted hours after Abbott first backed tighter gun storage laws. Within a month, opposition to the plan was part of the 2018 state Republican party platform.
The gun storage penalties, and a plan for a statewide public service campaign on safe storage, still had some GOP support when lawmakers convened in January. One of the primary sponsors of the Senate’s gun storage bill is Republican Sen. Joan Huffman, a former prosecutor and judge from Houston.
She’s also the chairman of the Senate committee where her bill was assigned. The session ends May 27 and Huffman has yet to give her own bill a hearing.
“That’s the clearest signal possible” that Republican leadership wants to make sure the bill will die, said Mark Jones, political science professor at Rice University.
Despite their strong majorities in the House and Senate, Republicans want to avoid any votes that could be interpreted as anti-gun in a state with more than 1.3 million handgun license holders, Jones said.
“An overwhelming majority still worry far more about the Republican primary than the general election,” Jones said. “They are always worried about being outflanked on the right.”
Huffman and Abbott’s office did not respond to requests for comment.
The House at least gave the gun storage bill a late-night committee hearing to hear testimony, but didn’t take a vote.
Rice, the wounded teacher, was among a handful of witnesses. With the aid of a cane, she limped to the podium to plead with lawmakers to pass the bill. She was immediately followed by Rachel Malone, Texas director of Gun Owners of America, who opposed the measure.
“We should give (gun owners) freedom to protect themselves,” Malone said. “Guns are used more often to protect innocent lives than they are used to take it.”
The bill for a statewide safe storage campaign fell flat. Representatives of the NRA and the Texas State Rifle Association lobbied against it, arguing that gun rights groups and gun manufacturers have already created similar campaigns that are distributed to gun stores and shooting ranges.
That way, gun owners get “content delivered from a source they trust,” NRA lobbyist Tara Mica told lawmakers. A state campaign designed by the Texas state police could easily be corrupted by anti-gun rhetoric, she said.
The ability to stonewall two bills that had the support of Abbott just a year ago proves the muscle of the gun lobby in Texas, said Rep. Joe Moody, a Democrat.
“It shows the stranglehold that unreasonable zealots have over this issue,” Moody said. “And that’s a sad state of affairs given where we were a year ago in Santa Fe.”