Texas Democrats Request Special Session on Guns

Legislators in five cities press Gov. Abbott

Wednesday morning, Democratic legislators in Houston, Dallas, San Antonio, Austin, and El Paso issued reverberating public calls on Gov. Greg Abbott to convene an “emergency session on gun violence” (as only the governor can do) in response to recent gun massacres in Texas and the ongoing toll of gun violence.

Democratic Legislators call for a special session on gun violence (Photo by Michael King)

“But it is not only mass shootings we must respond to,” the legislators wrote in a letter to the governor signed by 61 of the 66 House and Senate Democrats. “More than 3,000 people lose their lives to gun violence in Texas each year. That horrifying statistic alone should prompt us to take action.”

On the South steps of the Capitol, 11 Central Texas legislators, joined by state Sen. Royce West of Dallas, reiterated the call to action. “Thoughts and prayers have their place,” said Rep. Celia Israel, but said public officials have been elected to “write laws, to take action, and to lead in the face of tragedy.” She and the other legislators insisted that Gov. Abbott has a responsibility to call a special session to respond to the ongoing gun violence, and that such a session could focus on five priority actions:

• Enabling “Extreme risk protective orders” (ERPO, aka “red flag” laws) to remove guns from high-risk owners;

• Closing background check loopholes on all gun sales;

• Banning the sale of high-capacity magazines;

• Limiting the open-carry of some semi-automatic long guns;

• Requiring the reporting of stolen guns to law enforcement.

A spokesman for Abbott’s office issued a statement saying that the governor has recently appointed committees and task forces to consider gun-related issues, and that Democrats should talk to their colleagues and develop consensus. "Legislating on tough issues is hard and takes time," said Abbott spokesman John Wittman. The Democratic legislators responded that they expected to consult with their colleagues and develop consensus in the course of proposing and drafting legislation and moving it forward in an actual legislative session.

On Tuesday, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and House Speaker Dennis Bonnen said they are appointing interim committees to study prevention of mass violence other public safety measures. In general, the GOP leadership appeared to deflect calls for a special session, arguing that they can continue to work on the issues involved and propose legislative solutions for 2021.

The Democrats said that’s not urgent enough. ”We should not sacrifice any more Texas lives simply to accommodate a legislative calendar,” said Austin Rep. Donna Howard. Howard also noted that the 2021, 87th Legislature will be preoccupied with redistricting, likely to dominate the available energy and pull legislators in partisan directions.

Each legislator on hand Wednesday morning spoke for a few minutes, emphasizing different aspects of their effort to get the governor to take immediate action. State Sen. Kirk Watson lamented that in light of recent Texas appears to be leading “a horrifying national trend of more frequent and more deadly mass shootings, [and] the next mass shooting feels more inevitable than concrete action to stop it.” He added that beyond the headline massacres, more than 3,000 Texans lose their lives annually in gun homicides and suicides, including domestic violence. “It doesn’t have to be this way.”

Sen. West (who is running for the U.S. Senate seat currently held by John Cornyn) said Texas has become “ground zero” for gun violence, and that people in Texas and nationwide should not have to worry about gun violence every time they go out in public – to malls, movie theaters, public schools. He was echoed by Rep. Vikki Goodwin – who lost her father to gun violence – and who noted that school “fire drills” are now supplemented by “active shooter drills.” Rep. Erin Zwiener said we need to “refuse to accept this as normal.” Zwiener said her District 45 (Blanco and Hays County) is the most rural in Central Texas, that she and her constituents are familiar with guns, and like most gun owners, they support rational gun regulations.

The other House members on hand for the press conference included Gina Honojosa, James Talarico, John Bucy, Sheryl Cole, and Eddie Rodriguez. The group’s letter to the governor, in addition to listing specific gun legislation to be considered in a special session, noted that the shooter in the Aug. 3 El Paso massacre was motivated by hatred of Latino immigrants. “Due to the potential for racially driven violence,” the legislators wrote the governor, “we request that you ask the Legislature to pass measures to combat and interrupt the rise in racism and white nationalism.”

Appended to the legislators’ letter to the governor was a list of dozens of gun-related bills, sponsored by Democrats during the 86th Legislature, most of which failed to get out of committees. Howard mentioned a bipartisan gun safety education bill approved in committee but was never allowed a vote on the House floor. One bill (HB 1168, authored by Rafael Anchia) did pass the House and Senate, and would have banned handguns on airport tarmacs – Gov. Abbott vetoed it. (You can see the letter to the governor linked above.)

To the extent that the recent 86th Legislature enacted gun-related legislation at all, it was to loosen current minimal state restrictions on gun ownership and make it easier to carry guns in public. In response to the recent Texas shootings, Gov. Abbott has suggested that one action should be expedited executions – although Texas already executes more people by far than any other state. Asked why Texans should expect anything different from a special session, Rep. Howard said, “It depends on Gov. Abbott. If he decides to lead on this issue, then other Republicans will follow suit, and we can develop a bipartisan consensus.”

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