Texas Republicans loosened gun laws and slashed mental health funding before Uvalde shooting

The Lone Star State has declared itself a "Second Amendment sanctuary"

By Jon Skolnik

Staff Writer

Published May 28, 2022 6:00AM (EDT)

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (Photo by Brandon Bell/Getty Images)
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (Photo by Brandon Bell/Getty Images)

On Tuesday, an 18-year-old gunman from Uvalde, a small town in South Texas, barricaded himself inside the city's Robb Elementary School and murdered 21 people, including nineteen children, in what was the deadliest school shooting since 2012. 

Although little is known about precisely what led to this horrific massacre, news reports suggest that the suspected perpetrator, Salvador Ramos, who died on the scene, should have never been able to get his hands on a gun in the first place. Former friends of his told The Washington Post that Ramos had a predilection for egging people's cars, cutting up his own face "for fun," shooting random strangers with his BB gun, and sharing his firearm wishlists over social media. Ramos was also known to get into fistfights throughout middle school and would often lash out at his mother, which, according to neighbors, ended in at least one visit from the police. At one point, Ramos may have even been arrested for threatening to shoot up a school. But in Texas, where the Second Amendment is sacrosanct, none of this prevented the troubled teen from legally buying two military-style semi-automatic assault rifles and 375 rounds of ammunition on his eighteenth birthday, just a week before the shooting. 

Now, with the nation still reeling from the tragedy, Texas' policies on gun sales and gun ownership have come into much sharper focus. That's because over the past several decades – and particularly over the past several years – the state's GOP-led legislature has worked tirelessly to ensure that just about anyone can get a gun.

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Ari Freilich, State Policy Director at the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, said that Texas has "almost nothing" on its books to prevent the wrong people from getting their hands on a firearm.

"Almost no steps [have been] taken to prevent people with significant known risk factors for violence from accessing weapons designed to kill on a massive scale," Freilich said in an interview. 

On one occasion, Freilich noted, Giffords was given the opportunity to participate in discussions and make recommendations to the Texas Safety Commission. But the end result, he said, was "essentially a delay tactic, composed largely of symbolic, completely unrelated half-measures focused on hardening school security and making investments that would not show an increased safety, like arming educators."

Last June, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican, rubber-stamped seven measures designed to expand gun sales, pledging that the state would be "the leader in defending the Second Amendment." As NBC News reported, one among them was a "constitutional carry" measure, which makes it legal for anyone 21 or older to carry a handgun in public without a license. Another bars state and local governments in Texas from signing a contract with any businesses that "discriminate" against the firearm industry. By September, the state was requiring that banks like Bank of America, Citibank, and JPMorgan Chase – which underwrite Texas' municipal and state debt – make a formal promise not to exclude the gun industry from their financial services.  

Further, the Lone Star State has declared itself "Second Amendment sanctuary," a legally dubious status that holds that common sense gun control measures – like universal background checks; assault weapon bans; and red flag laws, which allow police to temporarily confiscate firearms from people who present a clear danger to themselves or their community – are wholly unconstitutional. 

"Politicians from the federal level to the local level have threatened to take guns from law-abiding citizens – but we will not let that happen in Texas," Abbott said in June. "Texas will always be the leader in defending the Second Amendment, which is why we built a barrier around gun rights this session."

Abbott, who has an "A+" rating from the National Rifle Association (NRA) and has taken at least $16,200 from both the NRA and the Texas State Rifle Association, is a longtime gun rights advocate. Back in 2015, as requests to buy firearms soared in the Lone State State, Abbott expressed deep concern over the possibility that Texans weren't packing quite enough heat. "I'm EMBARRASSED," he tweeted at the time. "Texas [is] #2 in [the] nation for new gun purchases, behind CALIFORNIA. Let's pick up the pace Texans."

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Two years later, shortly after the state passed a law to lower the eligibility for an open carry license, the right-wing governor tweeted a picture of himself making merry at a gun range. "Here's how I celebrate signing a law that lowers the license to carry fee. #guns @NRA," he wrote. 

But while the governor has giddily expanded gun rights, residents of the Lone Star State have repeatedly fallen victim to mass shootings, some of which might have been avoided if not for the state's laissez-faire approach to gun rights.

In May 2018, a 17-year-old used an 870 shotgun and a .38-caliber pistol stolen from his father to murder eight students and two teachers at Santa Fe High School in Santa Fe, Texas. While prosecutors in the state can file a misdemeanor charge against gun-owning parents who fail to prevent anyone 17 or younger from accessing their firearms, the shooter's parents will not be found liable for the shooting under Texas state law, as The Texas Tribune reported, in large part because the state's safe-storage regulations are relatively weak compared to the rest of the country.

Following the massacre in 2018, Abbott uncharacteristically encouraged the legislature to consider a red flag law in order to "identify those intent on violence from firearms." But even that proposal, which would have seen support from roughly 72% of the state's voters, was immediately torpedoed by Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, a Republican, and most of the state's GOP caucus. "It seems like there's coalescence around the notion of not supporting what's categorized as a 'red flag' law," Abbott conceded at the time. "What is important is ... that we work together as a legislative body towards a solution to make our schools safer and to make our communities safer." 

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Just a year later, in August 2019, Texas was rocked by another mass shooting in El Paso, where a 21-year-old far-right gunman, who was motivated by anti-Latino sentiment, slaughtered 23 people in a Walmart with a semi-automatic, military-style AK-47. According to the Texas Tribune, the firearm was legally purchased overseas and shipped to a gun store in Allen, Texas. 

In the wake of the shooting, Abbott convened a Domestic Terrorism Task Force, the second of its kind, to drum up a list of safety measures for schools going forward. Comprised of teachers, students, and law enforcement, the panel was sought to "analyze and provide advice on strategies to maximize law enforcement's ability to protect against acts of domestic terrorism." But after three years, it's not apparent that the committee has done anything in the way of actual policy, putting the onus mostly on Texas Democrats to push for regulation.

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Democratic state Sen. Nathan Johnson, who supports gun reform, called gun rights a "hopelessly partisan issue," adding that the Republican Party is attempting to turn Texas into a "military fortress at every level."

"Democrats have been trying to pass minimally intrusive, demonstrably effective gun safety laws, session after session over the past decade," Johnson said in an interview with Salon. "We're angry that what we have urged the legislature to do has not only not been done; it's not been given a public hearing."

He added: "It's just an insult to the many Texans who have been harmed by gun violence, or affected by gun violence, or are troubled by the level of gun violence in our state."

Now a newly-born Second Amendment sanctuary, Texas was recently ranked as having the 17th-weakest gun laws out of every state in the country, according to Everytown for Gun Safety. At present, the state has no high-capacity magazine restrictions, no assault weapon ban, and no firearm registration laws. Texas also allows anyone 18 or older to buy assault weapons; lets college students and professors carry concealed weapons on campus; and gives aspiring gun owners a way to circumvent background checks by purchasing firearms from a private dealer. 

Many gun rights advocates have argued that the state's dearth of adequate gun restrictions has led to outsized gun violence. According to Everytown, roughly 3,647 Texans die by guns annually, an average of about ten people every day. In 2019, about 61% of all suicides in the state occurred by way of firearms.  

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But the evidence suggests that much of this violence could be diminished by virtue of sensible gun reform. Back in January, a study by Everytown ffound that states like Mississippi, Idaho, Montana, and Arkansas – which have a uniquely permissive posture on gun regulation – suffer from the highest rates of gun violence, while states like California, Hawaii, New York, and Massachusetts – which take a much stricter approach – have the some of the lowest rates throughout the country.

"The states that have really … raised expectations for who can carry guns in public see many, many fewer fistfights turn into a shootouts and many fewer road rage incidents turn to murders," said Freilich. "And [Republicans] can point to gaps or failures … to prevent every tragedy, but in the meantime, that is not a reason, in my mind, to … do nothing."

By Jon Skolnik

Jon Skolnik was a former staff writer at Salon.

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Budgets Explainer Gop Greg Abbott Gun Laws Gun Restrictions Mental Health Republicans Texas Uvalde