State of Texas: Governor’s town hall reveals future direction on gun policy

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Gov. Greg Abbott took the stage Thursday for a town hall at the University of Texas at Tyler with the El Paso shooting that left 22 people dead still fresh in the minds of Texans.

The hour-long forum started with Abbott answering questions from the moderators of the event. Then he took questions from audience members and other Texans looking for answers to the biggest problems they see in the Lone Star State.

Some people were there in person to talk with the governor, others sent in their question over video. The first question came from Jose Reza, from El Paso.

“Governor…even though we may have differing opinions on the 2nd amendment, we need to find something that works for both sides,”  Reza said over Facetime.  “(How do we protect against) another person driving 600 miles to a very safe place like El Paso and gunning down 22 people?”

The Governor reached out his arm, pulled up his sleeve and showed his bracelet that read: “#ElPasoStrong.”

“We need to get to the root of this,” Abbott said.  “You don’t have to wonder because the person who did this, the killer, wrote it in a manifesto. He said the reason that he made this attack is because of racism, because of hate, because of his desire to eliminate people from the face of the earth.”

Abbott said Texas will continue to address the issue of gun safety and mental health alongside the federal government.  He promised to a solution that will target “deranged killers” with guns that wouldn’t infringe upon Texans 2nd Amendment rights.

Texas Democrats have called on Abbott to reconvene the legislature for a special session to tackle gun safety.  But Abbott said a swift response will not require a special session.

“Government doesn’t require the legislature to be in session in order for it work,” Abbott told the audience. “There are so many levers that the governor has available to him that we’re going to be able to begin executing right now.”

“We will act without a special session,” Abbott vowed. “But we will also be working between now and the next session to make sure we have the laws in place to keep El Paso safe and to keep Texas safe.”

Abbott announced he would hold a series of round tables with lawmakers, including the entire El Paso delegation from the state legislature, and other state leaders to find ways to reduce hate and racism in response to the shooting.

Texas Congressman Joaquin Castro, who gave the Democratic response to Abbott’s town hall, also called on Abbott to reconvene the state legislature and “pass universal background checks, red flag laws and address issues of mental health.”

“Governor Abbott has the power to change things and to make Texans safer,” Castro said.  “What is he going to do about it besides broach the subject? He’s got to take action, and if he doesn’t actually do anything, the words are worth nothing.”

In addition to the roundtables, Abbott announced a newly formed domestic terrorism task force that will meet for the first time Aug. 30 to combat statewide acts of extremism.

The Texas Democratic Party, however, said the governor’s task force isn’t diverse enough to critically address the racially-charged, anti-immigrant sentiments of the El Paso shooter.

“It doesn’t have experts in white supremacy, it doesn’t have anybody representing the Southern Poverty Law Center, NAACP,  LULAC (League of United Latin American Citizens) or MALDEF (Mexican American Legal Defense Education Fund),” said Manny Garcia, executive director of the Texas Democratic Party.  “(These are) human rights campaign folks that deal with hate on a daily basis.”

Garcia said Abbott didn’t offer concrete solutions during his town hall and accused Abbott of “dodging the question” about a rise in white supremacy and racially charged domestic terrorism. 

President Donald Trump is urging Congress and state legislatures to enact “red flag laws.” 

Laws that would give family members, and in certain instances police officers, the ability to seize an individual’s firearm who’s deemed a danger to themselves or others through a court order.

Gov. Abbott also seemed to shoot down the idea of adding “red flag” laws in Texas. Those laws would give law enforcement the ability to take guns away from a person deemed a danger to themselves or others.

Democrats have long supported new red flag laws. After the El Paso shootings, some Republicans, including President Donald Trump, have called on lawmakers to take a closer look at the idea.

During the town hall in Tyler, Gov. Abbott said red flag laws would not have made a difference in the case of the El Paso shooter.

“The shooter in El Paso had demonstrated no flags at all that would have triggered any type of mechanism that would have prevented him from getting a gun in the first place,” Abbott said. “When you start talking about passing laws, it’s important that you have laws that are going to be able to prevent the crimes you are trying to prevent.”

But Josh Blank, research and polling director at the Texas Politics Project, said polls show a majority of Texans back the idea of red flag laws.

“We asked about this in the February University of Texas-Texas Tribune poll.  Seventy-two percent of registered voters in Texas said they support red flag laws,” Blank said.  “That included 88 percent of Democrats and 60 percent of Republicans.”

But Blank said spikes in support on issues like red flag laws and gun safety are common on the heels of tragedy.

“The reality is any time you have a big tragedy like this it changes the way that people look at things and what’s important,” Blank said.

“We saw this come up in this year’s [legislative] session,” said Matthew Watkins, politics editor for The Texas Tribune. “It didn’t go anywhere. I didn’t see anything tonight to suggest a great big push from the Governor to try again.”

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