Then came the murders of police officers in Dallas, of worshipers in a rural church in Sutherland Springs, of students at a high school in Santa Fe — and increasing calls for change, especially from residents in Texas’s growing and increasingly diverse cities and suburbs, home to millions of recent transplants from other states and countries.
Then came even more death: the shooting in August at a Walmart in El Paso that killed 22 people, with the alleged gunman later telling police that he was targeting Mexicans, and a few weeks later when a rampage on the streets of Odessa and Midland left seven dead.
Now, Republicans who control the state are under pressure to implement gun-control measures that they’ve long spurned, ones conservatives in other states embraced following mass shootings. Continuing to ignore those calls could mean losing political power as rapid growth and accelerated diversity are defining a new Texas. Acceding to them, however, means angering what’s left of the old Texas, and the powerful gun supporters it has long accommodated.
In 2018, Democrats flipped two suburban congressional districts, nearly ousted Republican Sen. Ted Cruz and picked up 12 seats in the Texas House, putting them just nine seats away from taking control of the chamber — a stunning possibility, considering that Texas districts have been labeled some of the most gerrymandered in the country. If Democrats succeed in retaking the Texas House in 2020, they will have more of a say in the next redistricting process in 2021.
Six Republican congressmen have decided to retire, several of whom faced difficult, expensive reelection campaigns in 2020, and national Democratic groups already are pouring money and resources into those races.
Democratic candidates are not being shy about calling for measures unheard of until recently, including a ban on military-style weapons.
Rep. Lizzie Fletcher, a Democrat who flipped Texas’s 7th Congressional District in the Houston area in 2018, recalled Democrats outside Texas expressing alarm when she called for a ban.
“I’m on the ground here and people are talking about it, and people care about it,” she said. “People don’t feel safe going to church, to the movies, to a concert. People have a lot of concerns about that.”
Fletcher was not alone in seeing a shift. A new University of Texas-Texas Tribune poll showed 59 percent of Texans favor a ban on assault weapons, a figure that included 35 percent of Republicans.
The state’s changing culture has pinched Republican Gov. Greg Abbott, whose political identity has been tightly intertwined with guns and who finds himself navigating from the Texas he has long known to the Texas his state is becoming.
He once appeared on the cover of Texas Monthly with a shotgun over his shoulder, has jovially urged Texans to buy more guns and pushed legislation backed by the National Rifle Association, earning himself an “A” rating. In the five years he has been governor, more than 100 people have been killed in 10 mass shootings in Texas.
With each shooting come louder calls for action. Soon after the most recent mass shooting, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick (R) announced that he was willing to confront the NRA and become his party’s leader in calling for increased background checks, angering NRA officials.
When it was Abbott’s turn to take a public stance, he proposed gun-control measures blessed by the NRA, like increasing penalties for criminals caught with illegal guns and enforcing existing laws. There was no explanation provided of why he hadn’t gone further.
Expanded gun rights
At the Fort Worth Convention Center — where the main atrium is decorated with a massive lone star formed by cowboy hats — hundreds of gun enthusiasts recently gathered for the NRA’s Personal Protection Expo.
Burt Reiter said that, in theory, he agreed with calls to close loopholes that allow people to buy guns at shows or from private sellers without going through background checks. He said he doesn’t like the idea that “anybody can get a gun.”
“But the problem is, if we give that up, there’s no stopping,” said Reiter, 64, a lifetime NRA member who lives south of Fort Worth in Blum. “They’re going to want everything.”
Expanding background checks could present a host of logistic challenges, he said, especially for family members, friends or co-workers who want to sell or share their firearms. Reiter wondered how Texas officials could enforce such a law without creating a registry of all the guns in the state.
Over the past 25 years, gun rights in Texas have steadily expanded: Carrying a concealed gun became legal in 1994, and a measure allowing gun owners to openly carry their weapons was approved during Abbott’s first year in office in 2015. The state legislature, which meets every other year, has also expanded the places where weapons can be carried. Reiter and others sitting with him worried that those rights could be lost.
“It’s time to put a border wall up around Texas and keep all these Californians out. That’s what’s happening,” said Mark Raulerson, 55, who also lives south of Fort Worth. “They’re still coming in here, and they’re all Democrats.”
Throughout the expo, there was widespread admiration for Abbott and Patrick — and skepticism that the two conservatives would actually follow through on the ideas they had floated.
During the last session in the spring, Republican lawmakers with an eye to the next election avoided conservative red-meat items that other state legislatures were embracing, like dramatically cutting access to abortion. But to them, guns seemed to still be safe territory, and they approved 10 bills to make it easier for Texans to have weapons. Those laws took effect one day after the shooting in Midland and Odessa.
Daniel Sheppard, a grass-roots coordinator who oversees Texas organizing for the NRA, said if every gun owner voted, “we would be able to have a list of 50 great pro-gun bills.” And if not enough gun owners show up, he warned, the opposite could happen.
“If we lose a pro-gun majority in the Texas House,” he said, “we may have lost that pro-gun majority in the House for easily a decade.”
Sheppard and others laid out the stakes of the next election.
“All of a sudden we’re in trouble,” a man in the audience said.
Sheppard agreed: “Texas does weigh heavily on everyone’s mind.”
A changing district
Steps away from the Sugar Land district office of Rep. Pete Olson (R), a sprawling plaza features a bronze statue of “Father of Texas” Stephen F. Austin on horseback, his rifle raised into the air. The plaza is a popular gathering spot for young families, often speaking in a symphony of various languages.
Namrata Chand enjoyed dessert with her wife and their two small children, reflecting on the outsize impact guns have on life in the suburbs: Children undergo active-shooter drills, gatherings in open public spaces like the plaza prompt worries and some schools are changing their architecture to lessen the impact of a shooting.
“Instead of spending money on education, we have to spend it on that,” said Chand, 39, who moved to Sugar Land, a Houston suburb, from Chicago about six years ago.
Chand has long supported restricting access to guns and said she struggles to understand why Republican lawmakers have taken steps to loosen the laws.
“It seems like the laws got more lenient as the situation got worse,” she said. “We’re in the wrong state. . . . Honestly, we would rather leave Texas because of the state of affairs here.”
Nearby, Dhruv Patel kicked around an orange soccer ball with his 3-year-old. He would like to see state lawmakers implement some basic safety rules for guns, like requiring gun owners to lock up their weapons so children cannot accidentally fire them.
“Is it really possible in Texas, though?” Patel wondered aloud.
Patel moved to the United States from India in 2012, works as a computer engineer and plans to soon file for citizenship.
“Texas,” he said, “has its pros and cons but right now the present situation is more towards cons than pros.”
In the 10 years that Olson has been in office, roughly 200,000 people have moved to the district, increasing its population by a third. About 40 percent of district residents are white, while 26 percent are Hispanic, 19 percent are Asian and 13 percent are black, according to government estimates. In 2016, the seat was considered safely Republican and Olson won reelection over a Democratic challenger by 19 points.
In 2018, Olson won by just five points over Democrat Sri Preston Kulkarni, a former Foreign Service officer who is fluent in six languages. In July, Olson announced that he would retire.
Kulkarni — whose father was an immigrant from India and whose mother’s family traces its lineage back to Sam Houston — grew up in a low-income Houston neighborhood where gun violence and yellow police tape were part of life. He remembers hearing gunshots while he and his father were in a Taco Bell as his mother and two younger siblings waited in the car. He was 12.
“We all had to hit the ground and your heart’s jumping out because you don’t know . . . if your mom, your brother, your sister are going to make it out alive,” he said.
For Kulkarni, success in 2020 means getting as many new voters registered as possible, especially immigrants who have not previously been engaged in politics. Kulkarni’s core message is the Texas that he knows, not the Wild West stereotype.
“To me the greatness of Texas comes from our people. We come from all walks of life, but we also have good values,” he said. “We’re kind. We’re compassionate. We’re decent. And we see so much indecency, so much lack of empathy, lack of compassion around us.”
A pattern of shootings
Four months into Abbott’s time as governor, a frenzied shootout broke out between two rival motorcycle gangs in the parking lot of a sports bar in Waco, leaving nine dead. Abbott denounced the “lawlessness.”
Less than a month later, he signed into law the open-carry bill, praising the NRA and Republican lawmakers. That same day, a gunman in an armored vehicle opened fire at the Dallas police headquarters in what Abbott called “an isolated incident by someone who had serious mental challenges.”
In the years that followed, Abbott responded to mass shootings in the same way — questioning the mental health of the shooter and backing expanded gun rights. (Abbott declined to be interviewed for this article.)
In November 2017, a gunman opened fire in a rural church in Sutherland Springs, killing 26. In the hours that followed, Abbott told reporters that the shooter was “very deranged” and “seemed to have a troubled past.” As Abbott ran for reelection the next year, he released a commercial featuring a young man who was paralyzed in the shooting and now must use a wheelchair like Abbott, who was paralyzed by a falling tree limb in his 20s.
“When Gov. Abbott came into the hospital, it was just elatement,” Julie Workman, the mother of the paralyzed man, said in the ad. “When I saw the governor in the wheelchair and I saw my son in that bed, I knew that my son’s future could be anything that he wanted it to be.”
In the hours after the El Paso shooting, Abbott responded as he had so many times before and declared that “mental health is a large contributor to any type of violence or shooting violence.”
In the weeks that followed came a commission and more roundtable discussions. Before Abbott could suggest any legislative remedies, there was another shooting — the one in Midland and Odessa. Abbott suggested in a tweet that “expedited executions for mass murderers would be a nice addition” to the package he was creating. In private meetings, he signaled curiosity about “red flag” laws that take weapons away from those who might hurt themselves or others.
“I have been to too many of these events,” Abbott said at a news conference after that shooting. “I am tired of the dying of the people of the state of Texas. Too many Texans are in mourning, too many Texans have lost their lives.”
Abbott added: “Words alone are inadequate. Words must be met with action.”
Soon after, he released recommendations that stopped far short of embracing the ideas he and others had floated, the sort that would anger the NRA.
“Solving the problems that have led to these horrific events will take more than governmental action,” Abbott wrote. “It will require parents, families, churches, law enforcement, community groups, schools, and others working together to fortify the social fabric of our society.”
There are no plans for a special legislative session, as Democrats have demanded. The soonest lawmakers could begin to consider Abbott’s ideas is January 2021, after the next election.