What’s the difference between a mass murderer and a gun-loving Texan? Mere seconds.

Second Amendment

Stop us if you’ve heard this one. Guy walks into an unsuspecting public venue — this time, the Galleria — clad in black, baggy clothing, toting a Bible, a long gun, semi-automatic handgun, 120 rounds of ammo and donning a shirt emblazoned with the vigilante Punisher skull logo. A security guard spots him walking purposefully toward the Westin Galleria area where hundreds of young girls are competing in a dance competition.

These could easily have been the makings of another tragic Texas massacre. Perhaps the only reason we’re not referencing the body count at this point and telling you about all the young victims and their grieving Houston families is because one brave officer tackled the suspect before any shots were fired.

In a merciful foil to the deadly law enforcement delays in Uvalde, Kendrick Simpo, a 42-year-old Houston Police Department sergeant working his Saturday job at the Galleria, didn’t hesitate to pursue the suspect, Guido Herrera, trailing him swiftly but conspicuously without drawing his service weapon for fear of injuring bystanders, and taking him down within 10 feet of the dance competition in less than two minutes.

The incident happened in February. We’re just learning of Simpo’s courageous response because apparently, he viewed the incident as just another day at the office and didn’t talk about it much until he had to testify last week in Herrera’s trial. What kind of person potentially saves hundreds of lives and doesn’t try to grab credit? A damn hero. We were beginning to feel after Uvalde that they didn’t exist. Thank you, Sgt. Simpo, for reminding us they do.

Very likely because of his quick actions, the disturbing part of this tale isn’t bloodshed, the young lives lost or brutal crime scene descriptions of small bodies rendered unrecognizable by killing machines that have no place in civilian society.

No, the disturbing part is that, if Herrera did intend to kill people that day, nearly everything he did in preparation is apparently sanctioned by Texas’ gun-worshipping, NRA-fearing, Second Amendment-misconstruing absolutist gun culture. So much so that prosecutors struggling to hold him accountable in court had to rack their brains over what to charge him with so he’d serve any time at all.

In the end, as the Chronicle’s Nicole Hensley reported, Herrera stood trial last week for misdemeanor disorderly conduct, a Class B misdemeanor charge that left even the liberal judge who presided scratching his head. Herrera had also accepted a plea agreement on an unlawful carry charge related to a later incident when he showed up with a weapon at the FBI’s Houston field office. He received a stacked sentence of six months for the Galleria ordeal and one year for the FBI stunt.

“We have a genuinely dangerous situation with a genuinely dangerous person,” Criminal Court of Law No. 8 Judge Franklin Bynum said in court. “This situation, where someone is roaming around a federal building and malls with loaded firearms — and you’re in front of me? Why?”

Herrera’s defense attorney Armen Merjanian was happy to explain: “He’s a gun-loving Texan. He has a right to possess these weapons whether we like them or not.”

Don’t be mad at the lawyer for that comment; he’s just doing his job. Be mad at the legislators who passed the permissive gun laws he’s citing to get his client off.

We cannot think of a clearer example of the cognitive dissonance muddling the debate over guns and safety in Texas. A deadly mass shooting at the Galleria, had it happened, could have been a crime punishable by death. But because Herrera didn’t so much as point a gun at anybody, all steps leading up to that point — buying the assault-style weapon, nonchalantly toting a long gun in a family venue that bans firearms, donning 120 rounds of ammo — were legal and even theoretically championed by pro-gun activists as an expression of Second Amendment righteousness.

Indeed, because Texas doesn’t necessarily restrict who can carry a long gun, the only way prosecutors were able to charge Herrera with anything in the Galleria incident was by proving he carried his weapons in “a manner calculated to alarm.”

“Think about this,” Harris County misdemeanor bureau chief Nathan Beedle told the editorial board this week, “If I have the intent to do something — deadly conduct, aggravated assault, murder people — how long am I in a ‘manner calculated to alarm?’ It’s in those briefest of moments that we avoid a tragedy.”

Why on earth do we let it get so close?

The Legislature has passed so many exceptions to gun laws over the past 20 years that Beedle says a two-paragraph statute has grown to five pages.

How is this rational? It’s not. How is this allowed? Politics.

This editorial board supports the uniquely American constitutional right to keep and bear arms for personal protection, for sport, even for hunting deer for sausage and quail for dinner.

We simply believe in common sense restrictions that make it harder for people intent on killing others, or even themselves, to succeed.

Houstonians have a courageous police officer to thank for stopping a man who very well could have been planning mass murder that day. We have Texas lawmakers and Gov. Greg Abbott to blame for the fact he got so close.

Next time, we may not be so fortunate. Every parent in Uvalde knows that. By now, every Texan should, too.

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