McNeely: Texas GOP leaders soften opposition to gun control

“A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.”

— Second Amendment, U.S. Constitution

Two mass shootings in August, first in El Paso then Midland-Odessa. A total of 29 dead and dozens more injured. And the Republican hierarchy in Texas seems to be taking the idea of gun control more seriously.

Until recently, Gov. Greg Abbott seemed busy appointing special study commissions and calling for sympathy and prayers. On Sunday, Sept. 1, the day after the massacre in Midland and Odessa, Abbott attended a press conference as he has at the sites of several previous mass shootings.

“As governor, I have been to too many of these events,” he said. “I’m heartbroken by the crying of the people of the state of Texas. I’m tired of the dying. Too many Texans are mourning. Too many Texans have lost their lives. The status quo in Texas is unacceptable and action is needed.”

However, he has resisted calling a special session of the Legislature, which otherwise will not reconvene until January 2021.

“We need solutions that will keep guns out of the hands of criminals, like the (Odessa) killer,” Abbott said, “while also ensuring that we safeguard our Second Amendment rights.”

Meanwhile, Democratic legislators want a special session on the gun issue.

On Sept. 4, dozens of Democratic members of the Texas House had simultaneous press conferences in Austin, Dallas, San Antonio, Houston and El Paso about a special session, which only the governor can call.

“We’ve had enough roundtables, we’ve enough blue-ribbon committees, we’ve done enough studies,” State Rep. Celia Israel, D-Austin, told reporters outside the Capitol.

“Thoughts and prayers have their place, but members of the Texas Legislature and our governor were duly elected to write law, to take action, to lead in the face of tragedy, not to sit on the sidelines and not to pander to a small minority that doesn’t support common-sense gun reform,” Israel said.

State Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, joined in at the press conference. Texas, he said, “seems to be leading a horrifying national trend of more frequent and more deadly mass shootings.”

“Like many Texans, I’m frustrated that the next mass shooting feels more inevitable than concrete action to stop it,” Watson said. “It doesn’t have to be this way.”

Abbott didn’t respond by calling a special session. But a week ago today, he issued eight executive orders, mostly requiring the Department of Public Safety to set up better reporting systems on gun crimes and “red flag” efforts to spot potential gun abusers, and to educate the public about them.

And on Friday, two days after the Democrats’ press conferences, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick said the National Rifle Association should stop opposing background checks on private gun sales among people who often don’t know each other.

This came as a shock. Patrick, the Republican who presides over the state Senate, has been rock solid in opposing stiffer gun regulations. He has seemed zealous at insisting the Constitution’s Second Amendment justifies softening laws restricting gun owners.

But the Odessa shooter got his assault rifle from a private seller after having failed a background check to purchase one earlier, Patrick told Fox News on Friday.

The shooter “may have purchased his gun from a total stranger,” he said. “We want to protect families selling to family and friends without background checks, but about 10 percent to 15 percent of all guns in this country are bought stranger-to-stranger.”

Talking to The Dallas Morning News, also on Friday, Patrick said he is “willing to take an arrow” by going against the NRA’s position on that issue.

“When I talk to gun owners, NRA members and voters, people don’t understand why we allow strangers to sell guns to total strangers when they have no idea if the person they’re selling the gun to could be a felon, could be someone who’s getting a gun to go commit a crime, or could be a potential mass shooter or someone who has serious mental issues,” he said. “Look, I’m a solid NRA guy, but not expanding the background check to eliminate the stranger-to-stranger sale makes no sense to me and (to) most folks.”

The NRA dismissed Patrick’s newfound stance as a “political gambit” that “would require a massive, governmental gun registration scheme,” while “trampling the freedom of law-abiding Americans.”

It seems that with a weaker NRA due to internal fractures, Texas GOP leaders sense the political climate on gun control laws is shifting — or already has.

It should be very interesting to see how Republican gun control advocates adjust.

— Dave McNeely is an Austin-based columnist who covers Texas politics. His column appears Thursday.

Today's Bible verse

“Why, my soul, are you downcast? Why so disturbed within me? Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him, my Savior and my God.”

— Psalm 42:11

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