Since 2017, there have been five in which at least 20 people combined were killed or injured. In the wake of the most recent mass murder in Uvalde, politicians are again facing renewed pressure to reduce gun violence.
Gov. Greg Abbott says all options are on the table. On Wednesday, he called for the creation of special committees to address school security and firearms safety. But in public remarks, when asked directly about gun laws, Texas GOP leaders have kept the focus on school security and mental health care.
“There are thousands of laws on the books across the country that limit the owning or using of firearms, laws that have not stopped madmen from carrying out evil acts on innocent people in peaceful communities,” Abbott told the National Rifle Association last week.
So what proposals might have applied in Uvalde, Midland-Odessa, El Paso, Santa Fe and Sutherland Springs?
The Dallas Morning News looked into the preventive measures, criminal penalties or enforcement mechanisms raised after each of these five mass shooting events and reviewed which would have applied in each case. Then, we asked state leaders whether they support any of these proposals.
Here is what we found out.
The shooter at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde legally purchased two rifles as well as a large amount of ammunition in the days immediately after his 18th birthday, according to authorities.
Before he was killed, authorities said the shooter took the lives of 19 students and 2 adults.
State law allows 18-year-olds to buy firearms. But federal law, which trumps state law, restricts handgun purchases to those over the age of 21, with a few exceptions. This means, in Texas, most 18-year-olds can legally buy an AR-15 but not a handgun.
Historically, Texas laws regarding rifle ownership have been more lax because these types of firearms were used on farms and ranches. For example, it is illegal to allow someone under 17 access to a gun under Texas law. But there is a carve-out for youths “engaged in an agricultural enterprise” or those using the gun for hunting, sporting “or other lawful purposes” with adult supervision.
Gov. Greg Abbott has pointed to this history in defending the state’s current laws.
“Ever since Texas has been a state, an 18-year-old has had the ability to buy a long gun, a rifle,” Abbott said last week at a press conference in Uvalde. “Maybe we’re focusing our attention on the wrong thing.”
Abbott also said the state would revisit the laws passed after previous shootings. But when asked about specific gun proposals, including expanding background checks, he shifted the conversation to mental health care.
“Anyone who suggests, ‘Well maybe we should focus on background checks as opposed to mental health,’ I suggest to you as mistaken,” Abbott said.
During pre-recorded remarks shown at the NRA convention just minutes before Friday’s press conference, the governor said gun restrictions have not stopped shooting massacres in the past.
Asked again Tuesday about whether he supports raising the age to buy a rifle, or any of the subsequent proposals, Abbott’s spokesperson pointed The News back to the Friday press conference. Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and Speaker Dade Phelan, R-Beaumont, did not respond to requests for comment.
The gunman in the Midland-Odessa shooting purchased his AR-style rifle through a private sale that allowed him to avoid a background check, according to reports. He had previously failed a background check because of a history of mental illness.
The gunman, who authorities say they shot dead later that day, killed 7 people and 25 wounded in his attack.
Federally licensed gun dealers must run their buyers through the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, or NICS. But private sellers who are not “engaging in the business” of selling guns on a regular basis don’t have to get licensed or run the checks.
Several states have puts limits on unchecked person-to-person sales. At least a dozen states also have across-the-board background checks, and several more require both a state-issued permit and a successful background check.
Texas has not restricted private firearms sales. Here, it’s legal for someone to buy a gun from a stranger without having to go through a background check.
These unchecked private sales can happen online, at gun shows, between neighbors, or most anywhere else as long as the firearm isn’t crossing state lines. One caveat: Private sellers who have a “reasonable cause” to believe the buyer cannot legally possess a gun under federal law cannot legally make that sale.
In 2019, Abbott and Patrick questioned whether this should change. Both Republicans raised the possibility of requiring a background check for all gun sales between strangers at the time, but neither supported legislation to do so and the legislation did not become law.
Initially, Abbott raised the concern that “a terrorist” could legally purchase guns under current law, and Patrick has called it “a loophole in our background checks that,” if closed, “can solve a lot of problems.” He promised to defy the NRA to close the loophole.
Patrick, however, also said that requiring background checks for private sales would not apply to gun shows or exchanges made between friends and family members.
“It’s not the gun show loophole because most of those are firearm dealers there” who are federally licensed and therefore must perform a background check, Patrick told conservative radio show host Mark Davis in 2019. “It’s just stranger to stranger. They don’t know who they’re selling the gun to.”
Multiple Democrats filed such legislation in previous sessions, but the bills got little traction.
Neither Abbott’s nor Patrick’s office answered questions this week about whether they would newly support requiring background checks for all private transactions.
Authorities in 2019 raided the home of a man suspected of illegally manufacturing and selling the rifle used in the Odessa shooting, according to The Wall Street Journal. A license is not required to manufacture a gun purely for personal use, but federal law does require an individual to get a license (and run a background check on the buyer) if they sell that firearm. It also wholly prohibits someone from putting together a “non-sporting semiautomatic rifle or shotgun from 10 or more imported parts” or one that cannot be picked up by metal detectors or X-rays.
Texas bans certain weapons, including machine guns and short-barrel rifles, unless they are registered with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, and accessories like armor-piercing ammunition and improvised explosive devices.
El Paso shooting: Welfare checks and red flag laws
The gunman accused of killing 23 people in a racially motivated shooting at an El Paso Walmart legally purchased his AK-style rifle and ammunition online from retailers in Romania and Russia, respectively. He reportedly passed a background check completed by the U.S. retailer to whom the gun was sent.
The alleged gunman’s mother had called the police in the weeks before the shooting about her son’s gun. However, she did not raise specific safety concerns and did not give either her or her son’s name, according to an attorney representing the accused.
The fact that she felt it necessary to reach out to law enforcement has spurred conversations about how the call might have been better handled. Should the public safety officer, who was not a sworn police officer, have pressed the mother for more details during the call? Should there be mechanisms in place to route these calls to a specific officer or agency?
In roundtable discussions he convened after the El Paso shooting, Abbott discussed these ideas as well as whether the state should strengthen its system of welfare checks for people who may be a danger to themselves or others.
Police can already perform welfare checks when someone calls in with concerns about some else’s health, safety or suspicious activity. Abbott said he would be looking at “some kind of strategy that would lead to welfare checks when these sorts of issues are raised,” but no laws have been passed to implement this type of system.
If the state somehow enhances this police authority, it’s unlikely it would have applied to the El Paso case because the alleged gunman’s mother did not provide names or raise specific safety concerns.
Some Democrats say the state should go a step further and pass an extreme-risk protective-order law. Better known as “red flag” laws, these provisions allow judges to order that guns to be turned over by or confiscated from someone who poses a risk to self or others.
In 2019, Texas lawmakers filed bills that would have allowed family members and law enforcement to ask a judge to temporarily seize the guns of such a person “as a result of the respondent’s serious mental illness and access to firearms.” State lawmakers did not debate the bills after Abbott and Patrick came out against the idea, citing concerns about protecting civil liberties and Second Amendment rights.
According to the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, 17 states and the District of Columbia have passed some kind of red flag law. Some allow friends or family to raise formal concerns; others, like Florida’s, say only police or other officials can do so.
Santa Fe shooting: Child access prevention laws
The gunman who is accused of killing 10 and wounding 13 at Santa Fe High School was 17 at the time of the May 2018 shooting. He allegedly used a 12-gauge shotgun and .38 revolver which belonged to his father.
In Texas, adults can be charged with a Class A misdemeanor if a child uses their gun to kill or seriously injure themselves or others. The law defines “child” as anyone who is under 17 and requires the adult to have acted negligently by failing to ensure the gun was properly stored.
After the Santa Fe shooting in 2018, top leaders discussed upping the possible penalties and increasing the age of a child defined in the law to include 17-year-olds. Several bills to this effect were filed by members of both parties during the 2019 legislative session; none was passed into law.
The state did pass several measures aimed at increasing school safety, including an omnibus bill that requires districts to draw up detailed “multi-hazard emergency operations plans.” Lawmakers also voted to lift the cap on the number of armed employees, trained personnel known as “school marshals,” each campus can have.
Sutherland Springs: Domestic violence laws
On Nov. 5, 2017, a U.S. Air Force veteran shot and killed 26 people at the tiny Baptist church in rural Central Texas where his mother-in-law worshipped before killing himself. The 26-year-old had been court-martialed for domestic abuse after beating his wife and stepson, and had also escaped from a mental facility where he was admitted after threatening to kill his superiors. He left the military with a bad conduct discharge.
But the Air Force failed to report his domestic abuse conviction to the NICS, allowing him to pass a background check and purchase the AR-556 he used in the shooting. The victims’ families sued the federal government for negligence and won. The Air Force was ordered to pay more than $230 million to survivors and their families in February 2022.
The families also sued Academy, the retailer from whom the shooter purchased the gun and high-capacity magazines. But the Texas Supreme Court ruled Academy was not at fault due to the failure to report his criminal history.
Conservatives in Texas have pooh-poohed proposals to ban high-capacity magazines or AR- or AK-style rifles. But after Sutherland Springs, there was growing bipartisan support for tightening the state’s domestic violence reporting requirements.
Federal law bars anyone convicted of domestic violence from possessing a firearm. However, many misdemeanor abuse convictions that are pleaded down from felony offenses are not reported to the NICS. This allows some domestic abusers to pass background checks and buy guns. In 2019, a GOP-backed bill to require reporting passed the Texas Senate but died the House.
Furthermore, even when domestic abusers are told they cannot have a gun, the law often goes unenforced. Another bill filed in 2019 would have required each county to put together a task force for the surrender and return of firearms by domestic abusers was debated in committee but never voted on. It also did not pass.
Lawmakers did succeed in passing a law that requires people convicted of domestic abuse to appear in court and be told, in person, that they must give up their guns.
In 2021, Laredo Democrat Sen. Judith Zaffirini filed a bill to require courts use standardized protective order forms with the hopes that this information would more quickly be submitted to the NICS database.
“This change would save lives by preventing persons from buying a gun shortly after a protective order is issued when the possibility that the situation will escalate is substantial,” according to the bill’s analysis.
The bill easily passed both chambers of the Legislature. But Abbott vetoed the bill, one of only 21 potential new laws he shot down, arguing mandating courts to use standardized forms might cause more problems than it fixed as well as create loopholes “for opportunistic litigants to pursue needless challenges.”
Otherwise, however, legislators have generally balked restricting access to firearms.
In 2021, Texas became the largest state to legalize unlicensed open and concealed carry of handguns.
In 2019, Texas made it easier for people to carry guns into churches and passed a law prohibiting landlords from banning guns in their rental properties. Abbott also signed several other laws to clear up gun storage rules at foster care homes and in cars parked at public schools, and to give legal cover to armed Texans who accidentally enter gun-free zones.
“When you get 10 pro-Second Amendment bills to the governor and he signs them all, I would rank it up there with one of the most successful sessions we’ve had since I’ve been doing this,” NRA regional lobbyist Tara Mica said after the 2019 session.
The El Paso shooting occurred less than two months later.