EL PASO, Texas – Martin Portillo got a gun after the mass shooting at a Walmart in his hometown of El Paso two years ago, even though it went against his upbringing.
His wife, Daisy Arvizu, was working at the store when a man started firing — allegedly bent on killing as many Mexicans as he could in the predominantly Latino border city in the state's western tip, according to authorities. And Portillo felt that getting the handgun and learning how to use it might give him peace of mind and help quiet his wife's nightmares about the Aug. 3, 2019, attack that killed 23 people and wounded many others.
“I was the first one in my family to get a gun, we never resorted to anything like that,” the 26-year-old cable TV installer said. “It does get to me that I wasn’t there to do something. This is sort of the best I can do.”
On Wednesday, Texas became the 20th and largest state to allow some form of the unregulated carry of a firearm. Under the new law, most people age 21 or older who haven't been convicted of a felony can carry a holstered handgun — concealed or otherwise — in public without undergoing any training or getting a permit.
Supporters of the law, including Gov. Greg Abbott and his fellow Republicans in the Legislature, laud it as a necessary expansion of the so-called constitutional carry movement that will allow people to more easily defend themselves without government interference. But critics, including some law enforcement groups and others, say this further loosening of firearms restrictions in a state that has had more than its share of mass shootings is reckless.
Until Wednesday, Texans needed a license to carry a handgun outside of their homes and vehicles. To get one, they had to submit fingerprints, go through several hours of training on gun laws and gun safety, and pass a shooting proficiency test. Now, they can still take an online training course that the law requires the state to provide, but it is not necessary.
The Walmart attack led New Mexico, which is only about 15 miles (24 kilometers) north of El Paso, to pass a so-called red flag law that allows law enforcement to seize firearms from people who are deemed to pose a danger to themselves or others. According to prosecutors, the man charged in the attack, Patrick Crusius, drove from his Dallas-area home to El Paso so he could target Latinos, who make up about 80% of the border city. His lawyers say he was diagnosed with mental disabilities.
Texas, though, has cultivated a strong culture of gun ownership with echoes of the Wild West, and many residents support the loosened restrictions.
Among them is Jesus “Chuy” Aguirre, 78, who owns Chuy’s Gun Shop in El Paso. A generation ago, he successfully advocated for the introduction of concealed handgun permits.
“Eventually we settled down and the cops started understanding what they had to do,” he said.
Angel Zacarius, who at 21 is just old enough to qualify for permitless carry, was at the shop on a recent day asking about the price and quality of a used pistol. He said he didn't plan to apply for a handgun carry license so that he could save on the fees, which typically run about $200.
But many opposed the new law.
Although it stiffened the penalties for felons getting caught with guns, police groups expressed concern about the scrapped training requirements and about officers being able to safely navigate routine interactions with permitless gun carriers.
Even though Portillo, like many others in El Paso, bought a handgun after the Walmart attack, he said he's uneasy with the looser requirements to carry one in public and thinks it could lead more gun violence.
“I think that if you are as heavily armed as a police officer, that you need to be actually trained,” said Portillo, a naturalized U.S. citizen who moved as a boy to El Paso from Ciudad Juarez, just across the border with Mexico. “Things escalate, especially nowadays. ... They don’t fight with their fists.”
Adria Gonzalez, who was shopping at the Walmart when the shooting happened and helped guide others to safety, said the new law defies common sense and undermines discipline among gun carriers. She learned how to handle a gun at the urging of her wife, an active-duty member of the military.
“After everything that happened, she said, ‘You know what? You have got to be trained, you have got to be protected,’” Gonzalez said.
Dr. Jose Burgos, who was working at University Medical Center when victims of the Walmart attack poured into the emergency room, became a licensed gun owner near the outset of the pandemic out of fear of another attack on Latinos and after seeing the panicked hoarding of household supplies. He believes the rollback of training requirements will lead to unnecessary violence.
“If we have laws that are more permissive of gun ownership, people need to be educated,” he said. “You still have to follow the law that will punish you if you misuse your firearm.”