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Are Texas Republicans Budging on Gun Control?

Concealed Carry


Don McLaughlin, the Mayor of Uvalde, got his first gun at age fourteen—a pistol his parents bought for him. “I just fell in love with it,” he told me last week, as we spoke in Uvalde’s stately brick city hall, across the street from a memorial for the nineteen students and two teachers who were killed at Robb Elementary School by a teen-age gunman on May 24th. McLaughlin’s preferred home-defense weapon is a shotgun, which he keeps in the closet. He has a license to carry from both Texas and Virginia, and he often wears a concealed pistol, although he hasn’t been doing so recently. “I wouldn’t carry one in Uvalde right now, with all this tragedy, for anything,” he said. “There’s one in my car, though.”

Since the shooting in his home town, however, McLaughlin has been wondering if there’s something amiss in the American approach to firearms. While state officials talk about arming teachers and “hardening” schools, he’s been having conversations about gun-control policies. He’s not the only one. Last week, more than two hundred and fifty self-identified gun enthusiasts, including some prominent Republican donors, published a letter in the Dallas Morning News calling for a more robust set of proposals—expanded background checks and red-flag laws; raising the age to purchase a rifle to twenty-one—than the ones included in the bipartisan legislation currently under discussion in the Senate. “Most law enforcement experts believe these measures would make a difference,” the letter read. After a decade of political capitulation to the most uncompromising fringe of the gun-rights lobby, some gun enthusiasts are uneasy with where it’s led them.

Texas, home of the first mass shooting of the modern era (the tower shooting at the University of Texas, in 1966), has, in the past decade, amassed a grim and growing list of communities marked by similar tragedies: Sutherland Springs, Santa Fe, Dallas, Midland, El Paso, and now Uvalde. At the same time, the state’s gun laws have become increasingly permissive. In 2015, Texas began allowing permit holders to carry weapons openly in most public places. Last year, the state removed the requirement for a permit; now, nearly anyone older than twenty-one who is legally allowed to purchase a handgun can carry it, openly or concealed, in almost all public places. (Texas does not limit the public carrying of long guns.) That change was part of a wave of permitless-carry bills passed in more than two dozen states, most recently Georgia and Ohio. Despite their rapid proliferation, such laws were not overwhelmingly popular, even among gun owners. According to a 2015 poll by the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas at Austin, only eighteen per cent of Texas voters who identified as “extremely conservative” believed that Texans should be able to publicly carry a handgun without a license.

In the days after the Uvalde shooting, protesters gathered outside the National Rifle Association’s convention in Houston. But the real energy driving today’s gun policy, and gun rhetoric, comes from newer, more aggressive groups, such as Gun Owners of America and the National Association for Gun Rights. The N.R.A., for all its bombast, has been willing to negotiate on gun-control measures; G.O.A. and its ilk seem less interested in cutting deals than in waging a permanent war, and have no qualms about attacking Republicans who show an inclination to compromise. “The idea that the Republican constituency wants unrestricted gun ownership and gun rights is not quite accurate,” Jim Henson, the director of the Texas Politics Project, told me. “But it illustrates the degree to which a minority of Republican public opinion, the most conservative, is driving politics and policy within the Party.” The N.R.A. has not yet made a statement about the Senate gun-control bill, but G.O.A. decried its tepid reforms as “gun grabbing,” and the N.A.G.R. told supporters that it would “strip” them of the “right to keep and bear arms.”

In 1993, when Jerry Patterson was a state senator and “the gun guy in Texas,” as he put it to me, he wrote legislation that would allow permit-holding Texans to carry a concealed handgun in public. Ann Richards, the governor at the time, vetoed the bill and, in short order, was voted out; Texas hasn’t elected a Democrat to the office since. “We passed it, and she vetoed it, and that was—if not the reason—then one of the major reasons she lost to George W. Bush,” Patterson said. “So I like to think I made George W. Bush President.”

Patterson’s concealed-carry bill eventually passed, but he is now in the uncomfortable position of questioning his party’s stance on gun rights. “Somebody said, ‘You’re bold for a Republican,’ ” he told me. “Well, I’m not on the ballot ever again.” (Patterson left state office in 2015.) Since the nineties, Patterson said, gun rights have become solidly aligned with the Republican Party. “Back then, we had a lot more Democrats who were pro-gun, and some Republicans that were not,” he said. “What’s happened since is the polarization of the parties in every subject, on everything. And that’s because we’ve made the legislative and congressional districts competitive only in the primary.” To win over primary voters, Republican candidates pushed gun-rights policies—even what Patterson called “silly stuff”—to endear themselves to the base. Gun-control measures, even those with widespread popular appeal, such as expanded background checks and red-flag laws, were off the table.

“I don’t think we did anything to make [shootings like Uvalde] more likely,” he said. “But we didn’t do anything to make it less likely.” I asked how it felt to be behind his fellow-Republicans on gun-rights issues, after having once been out in front. “I think the Party is behind me,” he said, explaining that he thinks Republicans will come around to enacting some gun-control measures—perhaps establishing red-flag laws, or a repeal of unlicensed concealed carry—in the next few years. “How many people will die in that interim? I don’t know.”

Patterson is equivocal on the AR-15, the semi-automatic rifle that, in its polarizing magnetism, has become the focus of the gun debate: emblazoned on bumper stickers, T-shirts, and yard signs by its supporters; deemed a “death machine” by its detractors. AR-style rifles aren’t a great choice for hunting, unless you’re going after big groups of feral hogs, for which it is the weapon of choice. The gun-rights advocacy of the eighties and nineties was handgun-centric; advocates believed that law-abiding citizens needed a weapon close at hand to defend themselves against rampant street crime. For those who came of age in that era, the AR, in its brash unconcealability, functions more as a symbol than as a tool. “I don’t really like them. I don’t use them,” Patterson said. “It’s a look-at-me gun.” (He nonetheless thinks that a ban would be practically ineffective and a waste of political capital.)

His feelings were echoed by McLaughlin, who said he bought his AR-15 “after Obama got elected President and they talked about outlawing them.” “It’s still got the tags on it in the safe. I’ve never taken it out. I don’t like shooting it. I hunt with an over-and-under shotgun or a bolt-action deer rifle. I’m not a fan of that deal.” (He, too, opposes a ban.)

McLaughlin told me that he doesn’t identify as a Republican: “Do I lean more to the red? Yes. Do I agree with everything they do? No.” (He regularly appears on Fox News and, earlier this year, declined to endorse Greg Abbott for governor in the Republican primary, opting instead for a challenger who accused Abbott of being soft on border security and supporting “transgender ideology.”) After the shooting at Robb Elementary School, McLaughlin thought about the roles of social media, the lack of mental-health care in rural areas, and violent video games. But he was also coming to believe that gun-control measures would be necessary. “Mental health and gun control—they go hand in hand,” he told me.

He checked his ideas with his twenty-two-year-old son, who regularly uses an AR-15 to shoot hogs and targets out on the family ranch. “He said, ‘There’s nothing wrong with an expanded background check, nothing wrong with raising the age to twenty-one. I might even go so far as to say that you have to take an extra class before you get that AR. What’s wrong with that?’ ” McLaughlin told me. “Let’s regulate it in a way that’s safe for everyone. How could you argue against that?” ♦



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