After years of little progress, Texas gun control and safety advocates see some small openings for dialogue at the Capitol

Families of the victims of the Uvalde and Santa Fe school shootings gathered with state Sen. Roland Gutierrez, D-San Antonio, to show their support for legislation on gun safety laws at the Texas Capitol in February. (Evan L'Roy/The Texas Tribune, Evan L'Roy/The Texas Tribune)

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As someone who wants firearms better secured in a state that’s long balked at additional gun regulations, Leesa Ross expected opposition to some proposed laws as she headed into this legislative session. What she didn’t expect was more dialogue.

But after she testified at a Texas House committee hearing in support of designating August as “Firearm Safety Awareness Month,” two gun rights advocates she’d already met approached her to talk about the proposal.

Ross, who founded the organization Lock Arms for Life after one of her sons died in an accidental firearm discharge, agreed to sit down with the Gun Owners of America members about potentially working together in the future. She also plans to attend an event the group will soon host, where she will hand out free gun locks.

It was a rare — and small — gesture of congeniality from seemingly opposite sides of one of the nations’ most fiercely contested debates. It came during the first Texas legislative session since the state’s worst school shooting in history. And after Texas lawmakers for more than 13 years have loosened gun regulations and made accessing firearms easier, despite eight mass shootings in the same period.

Ross sees those conversations as a starting point — and, potentially, a constructive path forward. After all, in addition to also sitting on the Texas Gun Sense board, Ross is also a member of the National Rifle Association.

“We do have common ground,” Ross said. “I don’t think that any organization or any individual wants to have any more of these tragedies happening. It’s just coming together and figuring out ways that will be the best that we can all agree upon and make sure that we’re saving lives.”

Like Ross, several other people who advocate in the Texas Capitol year after year for what many Americans see as practical gun laws — like safe gun storage requirements — identified a change that has occurred this legislative session: a bit more conversation.

Nicole Golden, executive director of Texas Gun Sense and a supporter of bills that never gained traction in previous legislative sessions, has traded business cards with gun sellers and lobbyists this year. Rick Briscoe, legislative director for Open Carry Texas, said he tries to encourage polite dialogue even on issues of fundamental disagreement. Christina Delgado, a Texas advocacy associate for the Community Justice Action Fund, said conversations about ending gun deaths appear to be becoming more bipartisan as the scope and extent of gun violence’s impact on everyone’s lives has slowly creeped into focus.

Still, many bills — such as a proposal to raise the minimum age to purchase certain semi-automatic guns — face an uphill battle in the Republican-controlled Texas Legislature. A Texas House committee on Tuesday is slated to debate some of the bills filed in direct response to last year’s school shooting in Uvalde, in which 19 children and two teachers were killed. But similar bills have not received a hearing in the Senate and don’t appear to be getting one any time soon.

That disparate approach by the two chambers comes as the reality of the country’s gun violence epidemic continues unabated. Last week, a 25-year-old opened fire at a Louisville bank, killing five people — including a close friend of the Kentucky governor. This weekend, four people were killed and 28 others injured at a 16-year-old’s birthday party in Alabama.

“People are realizing that the increase in the occurrences of gun violence is really stretching so far that it is affecting people much more closely,” Delgado said. “We’re going to start … to see a lot more of this happening, and I think that that’s one of the things that is pushing people to really realize, ‘Maybe I should start engaging in the conversation.’”

The House Select Committee on Community Safety has already sent some bills to the full chamber, including a bill that would make an aggravated assault a first-degree felony when a person commits the assault as part of a mass shooting. Such assaults are currently prosecuted as second-degree felonies.

On Tuesday, the committee will hear testimony on House Bill 2744 from Rep. Tracy King, D-Batesville, that would require people to be 21 years old to purchase semi-automatic firearms — a priority proposal for some of the families of people killed in Uvalde last year.

House Speaker Dade Phelan has said such a bill does not have the votes for passage but said that will not stand in the way of it being debated. Gov. Greg Abbott has dismissed the idea as unconstitutional.

King, who could not be reached for this story, has previously expressed a bit of optimism.

“We have to go in it with our eyes open,” he said in an interview earlier this year. “It’ll be a challenge. It’ll be a difficult conversation for a lot of people.”

There’s been less conversing across the Pink Dome in the Senate.

At the start of the session, Sen. Roland Gutierrez, D-San Antonio, held roughly weekly press conferences — flanked by families of people killed in the Uvalde and Santa Fe shootings — to reveal bills he had filed. They included proposals that would raise the minimum age to purchase certain semi-automatic weapons, encourage safe gun storage and prohibit selling ammunition to teens younger than 18.

Thirteen of those bills Gutierrez highlighted at press conferences have been referred to committee. All but two of them have gone to the Senate State Affairs Committee. None had received a hearing, nor had one scheduled, as of Monday evening.

Gutierrez ran afoul of Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick two weeks ago when he pointed out that lack of traction during a debate on a bill aimed at restricting the drag shows children can attend. At one point, Gutierrez said he’s been all about protecting children during this session and “we haven’t done a whole lot of protecting the children when it comes to guns and ammunition.”

“I appreciate your interest in protecting kids,” Gutierrez told Sen. Bryan Hughes, R-Mineola, whose bill was being debated. “I sure could use your support in protecting the kids that are killed by gun violence in this state.”

Patrick hammered his gavel onto the sounding block once.

“Sen. Gutierrez, I’m going to give you one more warning,” Patrick told him. “That’s the last time. Stick to the topic of the issues that you’re asking questions on or you will not be recognized in the future, OK?”

At a press conference afterward, Gutierrez said the exchange was him “showing the hypocrisy” of Hughes’ legislation and Patrick prioritizing it.

“Most people get the fact that the people that are controlling this state are not focusing on the things that matter most,” Gutierrez said.

After being voted out of the Senate, Hughes’ bill has already been assigned to a committee in the House, while many gun bills still linger in committees — if they’ve even made it that far.

Golden, executive director of Texas Gun Sense, a nonprofit originally founded by survivors of the Virginia Tech school shooting, has been advocating for gun reform for a decade. Last legislative session, she recounted, bills got such little traction that there weren’t really opportunities to weigh in. This year, though, with bills actually getting hearings, she has already testified several times — and is hoping for more opportunities.

Not all bills the group is following have received a hearing yet, such as one surrounding protective orders, red flag legislation and another that would invest in violence interruption programs.

“We’re making some new alliances with people. I think there’s more nuance this session; it feels less black and white, pro or con,” Golden said. “It all really matters. You have to embrace the incremental nature of the work.”


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