AUSTIN — Rep. Joe Moody of El Paso was hopeful.
In the days after a shooting in his hometown in August 2019 when a gunman who said he was set on stopping a “Hispanic invasion” killed 23 people at a Walmart, the Democrat and his fellow El Paso lawmakers met with the state’s top three officials — all Republicans — who promised them the state would take action to prevent future shootings.
Former House Speaker Dennis Bonnen created a select committee to study the issue and provide recommendations to the Legislature. Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick said he’d take on the NRA to tighten background check laws. And Gov. Greg Abbott vowed to do “everything we can to make sure a crime like this doesn’t happen again.”
But with less than a month and a half left in the legislative session, Moody has lost that hope.
“Even knowing the political realities we live in, I had some hope there was room to finally do something,” he told The Dallas Morning News. “It’s become very evident to me that there isn’t, and that’s a sad state of affairs.”
Last Thursday, Moody spoke in front of his House colleagues to denounce a bill that would allow people to carry handguns without a license. He railed against the Legislature for focusing on bills that would expand access to guns while doing nothing to address shortcomings in state law that could prevent mass shootings like those in his hometown and other cities.
In a five-minute speech, Moody said lawmakers had “done nothing at all to make good on solemn promises made to the families of El Paso and in places across the state on the graves of their loved ones.”
“When are we going to do something?” he asked his fellow lawmakers.
Moody isn’t the only lawmaker frustrated by the inaction. Rep. Lina Ortega, who has filed a number of bills to restrict access to guns, also said she was saddened and angered by the way the legislative session has played out.
“Everybody in the [El Paso] delegation has been fighting hard to actually do something, to have the state of Texas recognize, and [for] the governor [to] do what he promised us: that he was going to actually take action,” Ortega said. “He promised us that things would take place during this session that assist and stop this from happening in the future.”
Instead, Ortega said, the Legislature has gone in the opposite direction at the behest of Abbott, who called in his “State of the State” speech for Texas to become a second amendment sanctuary state. Ortega said the passage of bills that allow people to carry handguns without a license are the “complete contrary to what was promised” to El Paso lawmakers.
Renae Eze, an Abbott spokeswoman, said the governor enacted eight executive orders following the El Paso and Midland-Odessa shootings in Aug. 2019. Those orders dealt with information-sharing, public information campaigns on how to safely store guns and report suspicious activity, and training for law enforcement agencies. Abbott also issued the Texas Safety Action Report and recommended some actions to the Legislature.
“Many of those have been taken up by the Legislature this session, including bills that would codify actions taken by the Governor and the Office of Court Administration following the report,” Eze said in a statement. “The Governor will continue working with the Legislature and taking action, as laid out in the recent Texas Homeland Security Strategic Plan, to protect all in the Lone Star State.”
Abbott did not prioritize any of the bills pushed by the El Paso lawmakers as emergency items — even the ones his office recommended in the report following the shooting — and has not thrown his public support behind them.
In the House, Bonnen announced he would not seek re-election a month after putting together the select committee. He was succeeded a year later by Speaker Dade Phelan, a Beaumont Republican. Phelan declined to comment.
‘Too much death … to do nothing’
House Democrats said lawmakers simply let the issue die. Dallas Rep. Julie Johnson, D-Carrollton, who served on the select committee for Mass Violence Prevention and Community Safety, said the panel was doing good work to build consensus around issues before the pandemic hit and stifled their progress.
The committee never published its report or made final recommendations to lawmakers. A similar panel in the Senate also ground to a halt after the pandemic.
“It just ended,” Johnson said. “We could have picked it up, we could have resumed hearings, we could have put together a committee report and enacted some legislation on that, but we didn’t. It’s very very disappointing. We’ve had too much death in our state to do nothing.”
Earlier this month, the House passed a bill to create an active shooter alert system. The bill, filed by Rep. Brooks Landgraf, R-Odessa, is named after Leilah Hernandez, the youngest victim in the Midland-Odessa shooting spree that happened the same month as the El Paso Walmart shooting.
On Tuesday, the chamber passed a bill by Rep. Mary González that would teach Texas school children about identifying hate speech, racism and discrimination on the internet in an effort to prevent online radicalization. The El Paso shooter posted his racist thoughts on internet forums.
But gun-related bills, like one to create a criminal offense in state law for people who lie to try to illegally buy a gun, have lingered. The action is already illegal under federal law, but because federal agencies are short-staffed, these cases are rarely prosecuted. Abbott identified this as one of his recommendations for the Legislature following the El Paso shooting.
Sen. César Blanco, D-El Paso, has filed a bill to let state prosecutors go after such an offense. Known as the “lie and try” bill, its supporters say the legislation has bipartisan support. In the House, it was filed by Rep. Charlie Geren of Fort Worth, a Republican stalwart who’s served in the House since 2000.
Blanco’s bill was left pending in the Senate State Affairs Committee last week. Geren’s House bill also remains pending in committee.
Still, Moody, said he does not blame Abbott or any other state leader for the lack of movement on these bills.
“The governor said to us to bring him legislation that there was consensus on. I believe we have consensus on major issues and we are failing to bring it to him,” he said. “There’s no movement in the Senate, there’s no movement in the House. The governor’s commitment was to work on those policies, but quite frankly if we don’t send him the bills , I don’t know what he can do.”
“Do I think he could be stronger in helping move some of these bills? Sure, but it takes 76 votes to get any of this stuff moving [in the House] and most of these bills are sitting in a committee where it’s difficult to pass bills out of that relate to gun safety,” he said. “There are challenges and impediments at every turn.”