Days after a deadly mass shooting in a Dallas suburb, families of another horrific killing gathered in the Texas capitol, demanding a change to the state’s famously lax gun laws.
It had been nearly a year since a gunman shot 19 students and two teachers at an elementary school in Uvalde, with police waiting more than an hour to confront and kill him. Those children’s parents and relatives hadn’t stopped lobbying Texas lawmakers for stricter gun control.
And after eight others were killed at an Allen shopping mall on 7 May, the Uvalde families quickly descended to tell lawmakers to pass their number one priority: to raise the minimum age for Texans to purchase semi-automatic firearms from 18 to 21.
They lined the hallways as lawmakers walked through to the House chamber, holding signs and loudly chanting “raise the age”, which in part is an allusion to the 18-year-old Uvalde shooter.
“Had this bill been the law in the state of Texas one year ago, the gunman would not have been able to [buy] the semi-automatic weapon he used to murder our daughter,” Kimberly Mata-Rubio, whose daughter Lexi died at the Uvalde school, testified in a Texas house committee hearing. “Our hearts may be broken but our resolve has never been stronger.”
But that resolve from the Uvalde families hasn’t coalesced into much legislative progress in the past year, stymied by a strong Republican-led legislature and like-minded governor who has doubled down on opposition to even simple gun control measures.
“Disappointment isn’t a strong enough word with regard to the inaction from the legislature,” said Nicole Golden, executive director of Texas Gun Sense, which advocates for gun control laws in the state. “We’re still taking steps in those directions, knowing we’re not there yet.”
At the White House, Joe Biden signed one bill into federal law a month after the Uvalde shooting, making some minor changes to congressional gun control measures. In Texas, more than 300 bills relating to firearms have been filed this spring. Few of them will pass. Those that do probably won’t significantly reduce access to guns in the state, and some may make them even more accessible.
The federal response to the shooting in Uvalde – exactly one year ago on Wednesday – was swift. The president was quick to demand Congress pass extensive control measures like a ban on assault weapons. But while most Republicans continued to push against the need for stricter gun control, US senator John Cornyn, a Texas Republican, led negotiations to pass modest adjustments.
The law closed a “boyfriend loophole” to regulations banning people who have been convicted of domestic violence crimes from owning a firearm. Previously, the ban only prohibited spouses, or partners who live together or share a child. The new law expands that definition to include dating partners.
Its passage was a major milestone for gun control advocates. Congress had not passed any similar gun control measures in nearly 30 years.
“At a time when it seems impossible to get anything done in Washington, we are doing something consequential,” Biden said when signing it into law.
Since then, there have been more than 650 mass shootings in the United States, according to the non-partisan Gun Violence Archive, which defines a mass shooting as one in which four or more victims are killed or wounded.
After many of them, Biden has re-upped calls for an assault weapons ban and other stricter gun control measures. He’s called the lack of response from Republicans “outrageous and unacceptable”.
Much of that inaction is driven in part by Texas lawmakers. Especially on the state level, there has been little to no remedy for mass shootings besides tangential promises of better mental healthcare and other stopgap measures.
The Texas state legislature only meets for five months every other year, so this spring lobbyists supporting gun control or, on the contrary, wider access to firearms descended on the capitol in Austin.
Many of the measures, including red flag laws, community violence intervention measures, background check requirements and raising the minimum age to own a firearm, have stalled in the Texas capitol.
Golden said the legislature did agree to allocate $500,000 over the next two years for the Keep ’Em Safe Texas campaign, which teaches gun owners about proper safe storage of firearms. Golden said proper storage helps stop suicides, homicides and mass shootings like the one five years ago at a Santa Fe, Texas, high school.
On major measures, even the most recent mass shooting in the state, which killed eight people including three children in Allen, didn’t seem to sway Texas Republicans.
But that shooting did move the needle for one bill in Austin.
House Bill 2744, which would raise the age to buy semi-automatic weapons from 18 to 21, had stalled in a chamber committee. Two days after the Allen shooting, the bill faced a deadline to be approved by the committee or fail there. Few expected it to move to the full house.
After the Uvalde families packed the state capitol, chanting “raise the age” as lawmakers walked to the house floor, the house select committee on community safety quickly called a meeting.
The committee voted 8-5 to approve the measure, with two Republicans in support. The room, full of Uvalde families, burst into applause. Some sobbed.
“We see so much tragedy with kids getting shot at school. This is a small change we can make to give a lot of people peace of mind and keep kids safe,” Republican Sam Harless, who joined Democrats to advance the bill, told the Dallas Morning News. “I did not come to the legislature to take easy votes.”
Golden said the vote was a major milestone for Texas gun policy.
“It’s unprecedented at the capitol in general. People were stunned,” Golden said. “I don’t ever want to take away from that.”
That win for gun control advocates was short-lived, however.
The next day, it failed to meet another critical deadline and was not scheduled for a vote from the full house. Democrats say they will still push for the measure, but it’s unlikely to be approved.
“The highs and lows in a matter of a couple days was overwhelming,” Golden said. “You have to take every single step forward and celebrate it and acknowledge it.”
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