When Gov. Greg Abbott first convened the new Texas Safety Commission last month after the El Paso shooting, he brought with him a stack of papers and wasted little time directing the media’s attention to it.
“In the aftermath of the horrific shooting in Santa Fe, we had discussions just like what we are having today,” Abbott said, holding up thick, paper-clipped packets for the cameras. “Those discussions weren’t just for show and for people to go off into the sunset and do nothing. They led to more than 20 laws being signed by me to make sure that the state of Texas was a better, safer place, including our schools for our children.”
The intended message was clear: He had been here before, and it led to results. But over a year later – with two more mass shootings rocking the state just weeks apart – the pressure that the second-term Republican governor faces to do more to keep Texans safe is higher than ever. And the political divisions are just as intense, as Abbott seeks to navigate between an increasingly influential gun control movement and those in his own party who demand that he hold the line on gun rights.
“My impression is the governor’s in a tight spot … because the majority legislative coalition doesn’t really give anyone on that side a chance to move on this,” said Ed Scruggs, the board vice chair of Texas Gun Sense who has participated in both the post-Santa Fe and post-El Paso roundtables. “They’ve been absolutists for so long that it’s very, very difficult. I really can tell you that the governor wants to do something to prevent this, but politically what is possible – he may be the only one who knows that.”
Compared to the post-Santa Fe sessions, which came after 10 people were killed in a high school near Houston, Scruggs said the first safety commission meeting that Abbott presided over after the El Paso shooting was “more intense and there was a higher sense of urgency.” The discussion, Scruggs added, was also more open-ended and wide-ranging than it was in the Santa Fe roundtables, which were more narrowly focused on school safety.
Abbott emerged from the first post-El Paso discussion sharing a long list of ideas that were discussed, including new gun laws, and even some Democratic lawmakers walked away with cautious optimism that GOP leaders, including the governor, were at least keeping open minds.
But only two days passed after the second safety commission meeting – Thursday in El Paso – before tragedy struck again. Appearing Sunday morning in Odessa – hours after the rampage that left seven people dead – Abbott declared the “status quo in Texas is unacceptable” and that the state “must broaden our efforts and we must do so quickly.”
However, with Abbott’s response to the shootings still in the roundtable phase, skepticism runs amok. In addition to leaving a trail of gleeful social media posts about Texas gun culture in recent years – tweets that have routinely resurfaced after recent mass shootings in the state – Abbott has overseen a dramatic expansion of gun rights in Texas, from an open carry law in 2016 to the slew of new laws that went into effect Sunday loosening firearms restrictions. And for gun control advocates, the memory is still fresh of Abbott asking lawmakers after the Santa Fe shooting to consider a “red flag” law that would allow local officials to take guns away from people if a judge declares them a danger — only to back away from the idea amid an intraparty backlash.
“I would say I am more cynical about Greg Abbott’s leadership than I am optimistic,” said Peter Ambler, executive director of the gun control group Giffords, who participated in the safety commission meeting in El Paso. “However, I do think there’s a path forward on gun safety legislation. I think that means that Abbott is gonna have to get out of the NRA’s box and take a leadership position that is basically a repudiation of what he’s done in the past and where he’s been in the past.”
Ambler and other like-minded participants in the safety commission meetings have been encouraged by talk from Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick about expanding background checks to include stranger-to-stranger gun sales. That issue is likely to get even more traction after it was reported Tuesday that the Odessa gunman got his weapon in a private transaction not subject to a background check.
Ambler said there was “genuine interest” in background checks at the El Paso meeting, but he was also concerned about the influence of the gun rights hardliners at the table and how deferential state leaders, including Abbott, were toward them.
Well aware of the political tightrope, Abbott has taken care recently to discuss keeping guns out of the hands of criminals – “while safeguarding Second Amendment rights.” He has used nearly identical language in the wake of both the El Paso and Odessa shootings.
Even before the first safety commission meeting, Abbott sparked outrage from some gun rights advocates by releasing an initial attendee list that did not include any of them. The list was later updated to include Mike Cox, the new legislative director for the Texas State Rifle Association, and he also attended the second meeting in El Paso, along with two local gun store owners and Stephen Willeford, the hero of the 2017 Sutherland Springs church shooting who has since become a prominent gun rights crusader.
“That’s positive, but we’re still concerned and we’re still needing to see more assurances from the governor that he’s listening to everyday Texas gun owners,” said Rachael Malone, Texas director of Gun Owners of America.
While the group is waiting to see what proposals ultimately come out of the safety commission meetings, Malone said she hopes Abbott and the panel “acknowledge that armed civilians are instrumental in saving lives.” Ahead of the first safety commission meeting, she organized a news conference with Willeford outside the Capitol, where she warned Abbott against a “rinse and repeat” of the Santa Fe sessions that led to the governor’s brief flirtation with red flag laws.
Cox was unavailable for comment Monday and did not respond to a follow-up request to speak Tuesday. But his predecessor, Alice Tripp, wrote to members after the first safety commission meeting that “his answer was NO, NO, and NO” when the discussion turned toward new gun laws.
The short-term political stakes for Abbott personally are limited, as he is not up for reelection until 2022 and easily won a second term last year against a vastly outmatched opponent who ran on issues including combatting gun violence. But as the de facto leader of the Texas GOP, Abbott has much more to worry about than himself for the time being – national Democrats are targeting six Republican-held congressional seats next year, and Democrats are nine seats away from the majority in the state House.
Many of those races are being fought in the suburbs, where gun violence concerns are weighing heavily on once-reliable GOP voters.
It is not just Republicans’ policy response to the shootings that is under the microscope. The El Paso attack, which targeted Latinos, has forced a reckoning of the incendiary immigration rhetoric that some Texas Republicans have deployed over the years, including an alarmist fundraising letter from Abbott’s campaign that was dated one day before the massacre. Abbott admitted last week that “mistakes were made” with the letter.
When it comes to guns, House Democrats are set to ramp up the pressure Wednesday, when almost half of the caucus will participate in five news conferences across the state – in Austin, Dallas, El Paso, Houston and San Antonio – to respond to the latest shootings. A smaller group of House Democrats has already called on Abbott to convene a special session to combat gun violence, something the governor resisted after the El Paso shooting but has not commented on since the Odessa rampage.
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Democrats and Republicans alike acknowledge that one big question that hangs over a potential special session is what, if anything, could realistically get done given the politically explosive nature of the issue at hand and the proximity to a pivotal election year. Plus, the House speaker, Dennis Bonnen, is still reeling from his own scandal that erupted earlier this summer and scrambling to rebuild trust in a body that unanimously elected him earlier this year.
State Rep. Roland Gutierrez, a San Antonio Democrat who started a petition calling for a special session, said he hoped the House could set aside the internal drama and that both sides in the gun debate could reach a compromise on just a few proposals for a special session, like expanding background checks.
“Let’s do what we can do – that’s my message to Greg Abbott,” Gutierrez said. “And if their side is unwilling to do anything, then we’ll see what happens in November.”