AUSTIN, Texas — In recent years, Texas has suffered some of the deadliest mass shooting incidents in U.S history. The Robb Elementary School shooting in Uvalde, which took place one year ago on May 24, 2022, is the second-worst school shooting in all of the nation.
That day, an 18-year-old gunman entered the fourth-grade wing of the campus and killed 19 children and two teachers. It took 376 responding law enforcement officers 77 minutes to breach the classroom and take down the gunman.
Publicly, the investigation has shown that warning signs by the gunman leading up to the shooting were ignored, including his attempts to obtain firearms before his 18th birthday. Leaked internal information revealed how misinformation and an uncoordinated command system proved to be catastrophic, significantly delaying action and medical care to the victims and survivors inside. Most records related to the response that day are sealed as part of an ongoing investigation.
After past mass shootings, Gov. Greg Abbott and other Republican leaders showed an openness to preventative change. Days after the Uvalde shooting, Abbott said he expected “laws to come out of this devastating crime” but would not elaborate on what those may be.
Soon after the shooting, some lawmakers and the families of those who died called on Abbott to call a special session to address gun safety before the start of the 2023-24 school year.
While the governor said “all options were on the table” in the days post-massacre, he did not call lawmakers to the Capitol for a special session.
In sessions prior, the GOP-run House and Senate have steered away from the idea of gun reform and instead focused on giving teacher more access to guns, passing permit-less carry and attempting to boost mental health resources. The 2023 session saw bills surrounding strict requirements for active shooter plans and audits of Texas campuses.
On the federal level, one month after the Uvalde massacre, Congress passed its first federal gun safety legislation in decades. The Safer Communities Act expands background checks in certain cases and closed the “boyfriend loophole” to prevent domestic abusers from accessing firearms. The bipartisan package also provided grants to bolster mental health resources and to better secure schools.
Many longtime gun control activists saw it as decent and meaningful progress. Critics argued it was restrictive of Second Amendment rights.
But as months passed, here in the Lone Star State, grief and anger gave way to persistent call for action from the families of those who died, some lawmakers and gun reform advocacy groups.
From the steps of Washington, D.C., to the rotunda of the Texas State Capitol, victims’ families and supporters focused legislative efforts on raising the age needed to purchase semi-automatic weapons from 18 to 21. Since January in the Texas Capitol, rally cries have echoed, “Not one more! Not one more!”
State Sen. Roland Gutierrez of San Antonio, who also represents Uvalde, filed what he called the “21 for 21.” Those were 21 pieces of legislation surrounding gun reform in honor of the 21 lives lost. His bills included safe storage for firearm requirements, closing the gun show loophole, stricter background checks and raising the gun purchasing age.
None of Gutierrez’s bills were brought up for consideration in Senate committees or on the Senate floor.
“We knew going into this thing how it was gonna be,” Gutierrez told KVUE. “But there was no other way to be, either.”
Still, families of those who died in the school massacre regularly traveled to Austin to speak at rallies and press conferences and met with lawmakers in hopes of getting action.
After months of hearing no good news regarding their efforts, victims’ families received some hope in April as one gun reform bill from the lower chamber of the Texas Legislature was scheduled for a hearing before the House Select Committee on Community Safety.
House Bill 2744 would have raised the gun purchasing age of semi-automatic rifles from 18 to 21, though there would have been some exceptions.
State Rep. Tracy King of Batesville, a gun owner who also represents Uvalde, said he believed his constituents would still be alive today had HB 2744 been law one year ago. Had it been law, the elementary school gunman would not have been able to legally purchase his weapons.
On the day of the hearing, King, parents, grandparents and siblings of the shooting victims waited more than 13 hours to testify to the committee.
“I’ve talked to NRA members, I’ve talked to people who are farmers and ranchers that got as many guns as I do almost and they say, 'You know, this isn’t that much, Tracy,'" King said before the committee. “'This isn’t that much to ask.'”
Families shared stories of their lost loved ones and pleaded with committee members, mostly Republicans, to pass HB 2744 in hopes of preventing a tragedy like they were experiencing.
“I don’t want you to have to identify your child’s body based on what he was wearing to school that day,” Nikki Cross, guardian of Uziyah Garcia who died in the school shooting, told lawmakers. “I don’t come to you as a Democrat or as a Republican, I just come to you as a mom, as a parent. Enough is enough, please do something, do something now. Don’t wait till another community has to go through this.”
That night, the bill was left pending.
Chairman of the committee, State Rep. Ryan Guillen, told reporters there was not enough support to bring the bill up for a vote. However, on the first day back in session after a mass shooting at an outlet mall in Allen, Texas, north of Dallas, Guillen seemingly changed his mind.
The Community Safety committee convened and, in an 8-5 vote, favorably passed HB 2744.
Cheers erupted and tears were shed. The families and the public in attendance applauded as lawmakers who voted in favor of the bill exited the hearing room.
“You know, everyone was crying,” King told reporters outside the hearing room. “Even the ones who voted 'no' was crying. Everybody was crying. Anyway, I can’t tell you how grateful I am.”
While a small step for gun reform legislation in Texas, it is a rare move. Two Republicans on the committee, State Rep. Justin Holland of Rockwall and State Rep. Sam Harless of Spring, changed course and sided with their Democratic colleagues.
But the celebrations were short-lived. By the end of the next day, HB 2744 was seemingly dead after missing a key deadline. It was not scheduled by a calendars committee in time to be eligible for consideration on the House floor.
Gutierrez tells KVUE he regularly reminded the victims’ families that their efforts would only get so far in the Republican-dominated Senate and House. He knew gun restriction proposals, from the Senate or House, would be an uphill battle.
“On some level, it’s cruel to give someone so much hope and then just to yank it out,” Gutierrez told KVUE.
He also assured that families from Uvalde would return to the Capitol next session. Gutierrez said this would be his fight for the rest of his life.
Lawmakers could still make HB 2744 law by attaching provisions of the bill as amendments to other legislation. But Democrats have, so far, failed to gain support in attempts to do so with enough Republican support. And despite the desire of the families of those who died, a special session to address gun control in the state is unlikely.
The families have often insisted that they will be fight for gun reform until the next legislative session in 2025 and will frequent the Capitol for that, too.
A May poll from the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas shows a majority of the state’s voters, 76%, support raising the age limit for purchasing any firearm from 18 to 21. Twenty percent oppose the idea, but most Texans polled from both parties back it — 91% of Democrats and 64% of Republicans.