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By the time Kimberly Mata-Rubio sat down in front of Texas lawmakers Tuesday night, 13 hours had passed since she arrived at the Capitol.
Mata-Rubio told legislators the wait to testify for a bill that would raise the minimum age to buy certain semi-automatic rifles reminded her of May 24, when hours agonizingly stretched by before she and her husband learned their daughter Lexi was among 19 children and two teachers killed in the worst school shooting in Texas history.
Ever since, Mata-Rubio said her mind loops through different scenarios in which her daughter is still alive. What if she had kept the 10-year-old in the school district’s dual language program and she wouldn’t have been at Robb Elementary? What if the young girl caught a stomach bug that week instead of the one prior? What if Mata-Rubio had taken her home after an awards ceremony the morning of the shooting?
“Had this bill been the law in the state of Texas one year ago, the gunman would not have been able to purchase the semi-automatic weapon he used to murder our daughter,” Mata-Rubio said, urging lawmakers to send the bill to the full House. “Our hearts may be broken but our resolve has never been stronger.”
Past 10 p.m. Tuesday, Mata-Rubio was the first witness to testify on House Bill 2744 during a House Community Safety Select Committee meeting. The bill would prohibit selling, renting, leasing or giving a semi-automatic rifle with a caliber greater than .22 that is capable of accepting a detachable magazine to a person younger than 21 years old. The Uvalde gunman used an AR-15-style rifle, which he purchased within days of turning 18 — after unsuccessfully trying to persuade relatives to illegally buy him a gun.
The testimony — filled with emotional accounts of lives torn asunder by gun violence and lawmakers grilling opponents to the measure — came during Texas’ first legislative session since the Robb Elementary shooting and more than 12 hours after the committee meeting began.
The committee first convened at 9 a.m. with people who traveled to Austin to testify sitting in a tiny room and ready. The legislative panel recessed at about 10 a.m. so its members could join the rest of their fellow representatives on the House floor for the day’s chamber business. The Capitol was abuzz with the lobbyists, advocates and staffers whose calls and conversations fill it every day.
But that regular business would not end for roughly nine hours.
When the committee reconvened after 7 p.m., the Capitol’s cafeteria had been closed for two hours, the Pink Dome’s halls were much quieter and night was falling outside.
Democratic Rep. Tracy King, who represents Uvalde and whose children went to Robb Elementary in years before the shooting, said his bill was a “very narrow, simple and straightforward raise-the-age bill.” He said he would not have supported such a proposal in previous sessions, but that such a law would have made a difference in the Uvalde shooting.
“In this case, ladies and gentlemen, had House Bill 2744 been the law in the state of Texas, that attacker would not have been able to buy that weapon,” King told his fellow committee members. “My constituents would be alive today.”
After hearing a concern from a constituent about the bill, King said a revised version would add exceptions to certain temporary loans of specified firearms, for instance for shooting on the property of the owner. The bill already includes exceptions if the recipient of the firearm is a peace officer or a current or honorably discharged member of the U.S. Armed Forces.
The bill remains a long way from becoming law in a state that has loosened gun regulations and made accessing firearms easier over the last dozen years or so — despite eight mass shootings in the same period.
But the fact that there was even a hearing for bills that could change how people buy firearms and how authorities report those purchases marked a milestone. To many of those who testified late Tuesday and early Wednesday, raising the age for certain semi-automatic weapons was the least that lawmakers could do.
“We all have disagreements and we all have differences, but I think we can all agree on one thing: America has a serious crisis and we need to start somewhere to solve this issue,” said Angel Garza, the stepfather of 10-year-old Amerie Jo Garza, his voice at times quivering. “We do everything to protect these guns. Let’s just try something to protect our children.”
At one point, a representative for the National Rifle Association, who challenged Florida over a similar bill that was signed into law by Republican Gov. Rick Scott in the wake of the school shooting in Parkland, turned to relatives of those killed to tell them she was very sorry for them and could not imagine the pain they endured.
But the NRA represents young adults who are between 18 and 20 years old who are not mass shooters, said Tara Mica. Realistically, she said, such a law would likely be litigated and found to be unconstitutional — an argument Gov. Greg Abbott has also made.
“There is no final word from any court on the constitutionality of a provision like this, is there?” asked Democratic state Rep. Joe Moody of El Paso, which experienced its own mass shooting in 2019.
Mica said there isn’t, but noted that the cases currently being litigated began before a Supreme Court ruling last year that has further jeopardized many gun laws across the country.
“Is it not the purview of the Legislature to pass the laws?” Moody followed up. “In fact, sometimes we pass laws for the very purpose of instigating litigation to figure out what the boundaries of constitutionality are … so there’s nothing that prevents us from joining that conversation in the legal world about where the boundaries are when it comes to the Second Amendment.”
A few hours later, in his closing statement about the bill — once the news cameras at the back of the room had left and as some lawmakers covered their mouths to yawn — King, a gun owner who noted he’s had an A rating from the NRA, said a majority of gun rights groups and strong Second Amendment advocates will never agree to anything that would limit people in any way. And organizations and advocates of gun control will never be willing to sign off on more guns.
“That’s why it’s our job to find the middle ground on what it’s supposed to be,” he said.
King said he filed the bill for three reasons: He thinks it is a good, small step in commonsense public policy; he doesn’t want other communities to share Uvalde’s experience; and he wanted to find the most constructive way to honor the lives of the 21 who were killed.
At the end of his statements, King read aloud to lawmakers each name of the 21 people who were killed that day in Uvalde.
Zach Despart contributed to this story.
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