This story is part of a KXAN series of reports called “Stop Mass Shootings,” providing context and exploring solutions surrounding gun violence in the wake of the deadly Uvalde school shooting. We want our reports to be a resource for Texans, as well as for lawmakers who are convening a month after the events in Uvalde to discuss how the state should move forward. Explore all “Stop Mass Shootings” stories by clicking here.
AUSTIN (KXAN) — From Capitol Hill to dinner tables in Texas, gun legislation has again become the focus of the political conversation in the wake of the deadly school shooting in Uvalde.
As state lawmakers convene for special committees on school safety and a bipartisan group of federal lawmakers negotiate gun reform measures, KXAN investigators took a closer look at Texas’ laws and how they compare to other states.
Using data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, KXAN focused on states with the most firearm deaths per capita: Mississippi, Louisiana, Wyoming, Missouri and Alabama. KXAN also considered Illinois, Florida, California, and Texas which have slightly lower rates than the previous states, relative to their larger populations. Then, KXAN looked at states with the lowest rates of firearm deaths: Hawaii, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Rhode Island and New York.
There are some general federal restrictions on who can possess a firearm, including people who have been convicted of certain crimes or who are subject to certain court orders regarding domestic violence. States can then enact laws to allow state law enforcement to enforce those same federal requirements.
Federal law requires background checks for people buying firearms through a federally-licensed firearm dealer, but not for sales between private citizens – sometimes referred to as the “gun show loophole.”
In the last month, there have been renewed calls for “universal” background checks, which some advocates believe would close that gap by requiring almost all gun transactions to be recorded and go through the National Instant Criminal Background Check System.
Of the states KXAN evaluated, four of the five states with the lowest firearm fatality rates, plus Illinois, require background checks for private gun sales. These same states also require a permit to purchase a gun or a license to own one, which may include separate testing and training requirements.
While Massachusetts’ law does not explicitly require private sellers to conduct background checks, these sellers are able to check the validity of the purchaser’s required license to own. These licenses must be renewed, at which time the licensee may undergo another background check.
Florida law also does not require background checks for private sales, but in 2018, lawmakers there closed what is known as the “Charleston loophole.” Under federal law, a gun dealer can proceed with a sale — before the background check is complete — if more than 3 days have passed since the background check was initiated.
The Florida law establishes a “waiting period” of either three days or until a background check is complete.
Waiting periods are not required by federal law, but California, Hawaii, Illinois and Rhode Island have also established different required periods of waiting time before a purchase can be completed.
Nicole Golden, the Executive Director of Texas Gun Sense, said her organization has advocated for legislation that would close certain “loopholes,” but says it is up to state lawmakers to pass these laws and “make sure that guns aren’t ending up in dangerous hands.”
Texas attorney and Second Amendment rights expert Richard D. Hayes emphasized Texas was “no more strict than the federal government” when it comes to restrictions and background checks.
“Yesterday’s compromise is today’s loophole,” he said. “Today they’re calling it a loophole, when at the time that was clearly the only thing that made sense.”
Age restrictions for possession and purchase
State and federal laws outline different age requirements for the possession and purchase of different types of firearms.
Federal law prohibits anyone under the age of 18 from possessing a handgun, but some states, including Hawaii, Illinois, Massachusetts, New Jersey and New York, have enacted age requirements which are stricter than the federal minimum.
There is no federal minimum age to possess long gun, or rifle. Nearly two dozen states enacted laws to increase the age requirements, while some states have stipulations allowing minors to possess a long gun in certain circumstances, sometimes with a parent’s permission.
“Where do I think the problem is? It probably lies in enforcement.”Richard D. Hayes, former felony prosecutor and Second Amendment attorney
Under the federal Gun Control Act, people must be at least 18 years old to buy shotguns, rifles and ammunition for those firearms from a federally-licensed vendor. They must be 21 years old to purchase all other types of firearms.
However, there is no federal age restriction on gun sales between private citizens or using unlicensed vendors, so state law in some states allows for the purchase of either kind of weapon at younger ages, including Mississippi, Alabama, Louisiana and Missouri.
Meanwhile, New York recently raised the minimum age to purchase a rifle to 21. According to an NBC News report, only six other states have raised the age to 21: California, Hawaii, Illinois, Vermont, Washington State and Florida.
Florida made the move in 2018, after the deadly school shooting in Parkland.
Red flag laws
Florida’s law included several other measures, including implementing a waiting period for purchasing a gun and what is commonly known as a “red flag law.” In Florida, extreme risk protection orders give judges the power to bar potentially dangerous people from owning or buying a gun.
Golden said the law has been successful in catching and averting “potential threats.”
“Texans really deserve something like that as a tool for families in crisis,” she said.
She said her organization was hopeful in 2018, when it held a seat at the table as Gov. Greg Abbott hosted roundtable discussions about school safety. Part of the governor’s list of potential solutions to explore included some gun safety measures, such as red flag laws.
“We know we can’t prevent everything, but we know that we can do more, and that — and that having weak gun laws that are further weakened? It certainly is — certainly not the answer.”Nicole Golden, Texas Gun Sense
However, when lawmakers passed several sweeping school safety bills, none of the measures regarding firearms were included. Golden recalls it as a “disappointing” moment.
Meanwhile, Hayes pointed out that the state already has a provision that he says functions like a red flag law. He believes it should be utilized more frequently.
Chapter 573 of the Health and Safety Code outlines the procedure for law enforcement to conduct emergency detentions of people they believe to be posing a danger to themselves or others because of “mental illness,” “severe emotional distress” or “deterioration” of their mental condition. The law provides law enforcement a policy on seizing a firearm in these situations.
“We’re going to figure out, ‘Is this person a substantial danger to themselves? Others? We’re going to diagnose them, we’re going to commit them, or we’re going to start monitoring them,” he said. “I think that’s so much better to focus on the dangerous person as opposed to just a firearm by itself.”
Hayes told KXAN he believes enforcing current laws, such as Chapter 573, may be key to preventing gun violence. With a background as a felony prosecutor, he noted he counted 49 laws broken by the Uvalde shooter in all, during the shooting rampage that claimed the lives of 19 students and two teachers.
“We have a ton of laws on the books, and I think some of these could have prevented it,” he said.
He also emphasized what he called the “staggering” numbers of shootings taking place in gun-free zones, where he worries unarmed victims may be defenseless. He used churches as an example, crediting a 2019 Texas law that authorized anyone with a concealed-carry license to bring their weapon into houses of worship. It passed in response to the Sutherland Springs church shooting, where 26 people died.
Historically, the Texas legislative response after mass shootings has led to a flurry of laws aiming to improve safety generally, alongside laws to reduce restrictions on guns. For instance, in response to a shooting at a high school in Santa Fe Texas, lawmakers also expanded the number of trained school teachers and support staff who can carry guns on public school campuses in 2019.
Golden says, this time, “All eyes are on Texas.”
She said her organization has heard a stronger outcry than ever for what she calls common sense gun reforms, such as closing certain “loopholes” on background checks and red flag laws.
“I don’t think that the public is going to accept just the status quo anymore, especially after what happened in Uvalde,” she said.
The mom-turned-advocate began calling for gun safety measures and reforms after the Sandy Hook elementary school shooting in 2012.
She said its research shows states with more gun restrictions see fewer gun deaths overall.
KXAN evaluated a database of public mass shootings, compiled by the National Institute of Justice, which is an arm of the U.S. Department of Justice. The researchers compiled a database of these incidents from 1966 to 2019, using the Congressional Research Service definition of a public mass shooting: “a multiple homicide incident in which four or more victims are murdered with firearms”, not including the shooter(s), “within one event, and [where] at least some of the murders occurred in a public location or locations in close geographical proximity (e.g., a workplace, school, restaurant, or other public settings), and the murders are not attributable to any other underlying criminal activity or commonplace circumstance (armed robbery, criminal competition, insurance fraud, argument, or romantic triangle).”
The NIJ research found a “troubling upward trend” of these kinds of attacks in recent years.
It also found shooters in more than 77% of these incidents used handguns, while 25% used assault rifles.
According to the study, 77% of the shooters in the incidents evaluated purchased at least some of their guns legally. In cases involving school shootings, the study noted more than 80% of shooters stole guns from family members.
Hayes said these facts points to why handguns are often regulated differently from long guns — and the need for better enforcement.
“Homicide is the problem; violence is the problem. It’s not necessarily the long gun,” he said.
According to the researchers, their findings also support gun storage laws and certain red flag laws.
KXAN investigators found it’s unclear what other legislation, if any, had an impact on the number of shootings in each state, as defined by this research.
Golden said she sees direct connections between the initiatives championed by Texas Gun Sense and past mass shootings.
“If we were to enact comprehensive background checks, that’s the kind of measure that could have prevented Midland-Odessa,” she said. “If we talked about extreme risk protection order, that might have prevented what happens in an El Paso. Then if we if we want to talk about a stronger vetting process, and perhaps raising the age of purchase for semi automatic weapons, that could have prevented Uvalde … Again, I’m not saying we know for sure, but we’re saying — something might have.”
She also agrees with Hayes on looking closer at laws that are already in place, but she says many of those laws “are working” already.
“They’re creating some safety nets,” she said. “How can we strengthen those laws?”
KXAN’s Richie Bowes, Christopher Adams and Sam Stark contributed to this report.