Texas Republicans Going On Gun Control?

Don McLaughlin, the mayor of Uvalde, got his first gun at the age of fourteen – a handgun that his parents bought for him. “I just fell in love with her,” he told me last week as we spoke in Uvalde’s stately brick town hall, opposite a memorial to the nineteen students and two teachers killed by a teenager at Robb Elementary School. Old Sagittarius on May 24th. McLaughlin’s favorite home defense weapon is a shotgun, which he keeps in the closet. He is licensed to carry Texas and Virginia and often carries a concealed handgun, although he has not done so recently. “I wouldn’t wear one in Uvalde for anything now, with all this tragedy,” he said. “But there’s one in my car.”

Since the shooting in his hometown, however, McLaughlin has wondered if there’s something wrong with America’s handling of firearms. As state officials talk about arming teachers and “hardening” schools, he has held talks on gun control measures. He’s not the only one. Last week, more than two hundred and fifty self-proclaimed gun enthusiasts, including some prominent Republican donors, published a letter in the Dallas morning news Call for more robust proposals – expanded background checks and red flags; Raising the age for buying a gun to twenty-one – than those included in bipartisan legislation currently being debated in the Senate. “Most law enforcement experts believe these actions would make a difference,” the letter said. After a decade of political capitulation to the most uncompromising fringe of the gun rights lobby, some gun enthusiasts are uneasy about where that has led them.

Texas, home of the first mass shooting of modern times (the 1966 University of Texas tower shooting), has amassed over the past decade a murky and growing list of communities marked by similar tragedies: Sutherland Springs, Santa Fe, Dallas, Midland, El Paso and now Uvalde. At the same time, state gun laws have become increasingly permissive. In 2015, Texas allowed permit holders to openly carry guns in most public places. Last year, the state abolished the permit requirement; today almost anyone over the age of twenty-one who can legally purchase a pistol can carry it openly or concealed in almost any public place. (Texas does not restrict the public carrying of long guns.) This change was part of a wave of permitless-carry bills passed in more than two dozen states, most recently in Georgia and Ohio. Despite their rapid spread, such laws were not overwhelmingly popular even among gun owners. According to a 2015 poll by the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas at Austin, only eighteen percent of Texas voters who identified as “extremely conservative” believed Texans should be able to carry a handgun in public without a license .

In the days after the Uvalde shooting, protesters gathered outside the National Rifle Association convention in Houston. But the real energy driving today’s gun policy and gun rhetoric comes from newer, more aggressive groups like the Gun Owners of America and the National Association for Gun Rights. The NRA, for all its bombast, was willing to negotiate gun control measures; GOA and their ilk seem less interested in making deals than in waging an ongoing war, and have no qualms about attacking Republicans who show a penchant for compromise. “The idea that the Republican constituency wants free gun ownership and free gun rights is not entirely correct,” Jim Henson, director of the Texas Politics Project, told me. “But it illustrates the extent to which a minority of Republican public opinion, the most conservative, is driving politics and politics within the party.” The NRA has yet to issue a statement on the Senate gun control bill, but the GOA condemned its lukewarm reforms as “Arms robbery,” and the NAGR told its supporters that they were “depriving” them of their “right to keep and bear arms.” ”

In 1993, when Jerry Patterson was Senator and “the Gun Guy in Texas,” as he put it to me, he wrote a law allowing Texans with permission to carry a concealed handgun in public. Ann Richards, the then governor, vetoed the bill and was voted out shortly thereafter; Since then, Texas has not elected a Democrat to office. “We passed it, and she vetoed it, and that was — if not the Reason — then one of the main reasons she lost to George W. Bush,” Patterson said. “So I like to think that I made George W. Bush president.”

Patterson’s concealed carry bill eventually passed, but he now finds himself in the awkward position of questioning his party’s stance on gun rights. “Someone said, ‘You’re cheeky for a Republican,'” he told me. “Well, I’ll never be on the ballot again.” (Patterson left state office in 2015.) Since the 1990s, Patterson said, gun rights have been firmly allied with the Republican Party. “Back then we had a lot more Democrats who were pro-guns and some Republicans who weren’t,” he said. “What has happened since then is the polarization of the parties in every subject, in everything. And that’s because we only made the legislative and congressional districts competitive in the primaries.” In order to win over primary voters, Republican candidates pushed gun rights policies—even what Patterson called “stupid stuff”—to order to make himself popular with the base. Gun control measures, even those with widespread popularity such as expanded background checks and red flag laws, were off the table.

“I don’t think we did anything [shootings like Uvalde] more likely,” he said. “But we haven’t done anything to make it less likely.” I asked how it felt to be behind your Republican compatriots on gun rights issues after once being at the forefront. “I think the party is lagging behind meHe said, explaining that he believes Republicans will take some gun control action in the next few years — perhaps introducing red-flag laws or repealing unlicensed concealed carry. “How many people will die in the meantime? I do not know.”

Patterson is ambiguous about the AR-15, the semi-automatic rifle that has become the focus of the gun debate with its polarizing appeal: emblazoned on bumper stickers, T-shirts, and yard signs by its supporters; considered a “death machine” by its critics. AR style rifles are not a good choice for hunting unless you are hunting large groups of wild boar for which it is the weapon of choice. Gun rights advocacy in the 1980s and 1990s focused on handguns; Proponents believed that law-abiding citizens needed a weapon nearby to defend against rampant street crime. For those who had grown up at the time, the AR, with its bold unconcealability, functioned more as a symbol than as a tool. “I don’t really like her. I don’t use them,” Patterson said. “It’s a look-at-me gun.” (Nevertheless, he considers a ban practically ineffective and a waste of political capital.)

His sentiments were shared by McLaughlin, who said he bought his AR-15 “after Obama got elected president and they were talking about banning it.” “The tags are still in the safe. I never took it out. I don’t like shooting. I hunt with an over and under or a bolt-action rifle. I’m not a fan of this deal.” (He, too, opposes a ban.)

McLaughlin told me that he doesn’t identify as a Republican: “Am I leaning more towards the Reds? Yes. Am I okay with everything they do? No.” (He appears regularly on Fox News and earlier this year declined to endorse Greg Abbott for governor in the Republican primary, opting instead for a challenger who accused Abbott of being lenient on border security and the ” to support transgender ideology.) After the Robb Elementary School shooting, McLaughlin reflected on the role of social media, the lack of mental health services in rural areas, and violent video games, but he also came to believe that gun control measures “Mental health and gun control — they go hand in hand,” he told me.

He tested his ideas with his twenty-two-year-old son, who regularly shoots hogs and targets with an AR-15 on the family ranch. “He said, ‘There’s nothing wrong with an extended background check, nothing wrong with raising the age to twenty-one. I could even go so far as to say that you need to take an additional course before you can get this AR. What is wrong with that?’ ‘ McLaughlin said to me. “Let’s fix it so it’s safe for everyone. How could you argue against that?” ♦


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