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Texas Lawmakers Visit El Paso In Effort To Prevent Future Mass Shootings

By Mallory Falk, KERA

Texas has seen four major mass shootings in the last two years. Despite conversations in communities and at the statehouse, little has changed in the state. But after gunmen killed 29 people in two West Texas shootings in August, state leaders called for “meaningful action” and formed special committees in the Texas house and senate. Their charge: come up with policies that will reduce mass violence.

On Monday, the Texas Senate Select Committee on Mass Violence and Community Safety held its most recent public hearing in El Paso, where an alleged gunman killed 22 people and injured dozens more at a crowded Walmart.

Pastor Michael Grady was one of several speakers invited to share testimony. On August 3, his 33-year-old daughter, Michelle, was standing outside the Walmart, donating money to a youth soccer team fundraiser. Then, bullets started flying. The gunman shot her three times, but after multiple surgeries, she survived.

“She’s home now and she’s still doing outpatient care, with wound care,” Grady said. “The wounds have to be healed. The psychological and emotional trauma continues every day.”

Police say the suspect in the El Paso shooting targeted Mexicans, and drove ten hours from his Dallas suburb to carry out the massacre.

“Michelle, she said, ‘well father, I’m not a Mexican American,’” Grady said. “I said, ‘but bullets don’t know who you are.’”

Grady had a message for the lawmakers: “I’m convinced today that the greatest thing that the Texas legislature could do is to try to come up with common sense gun legislation.”

Both the House and Senate committees are seeking input on the types of policy changes that could prevent future violence, and turning to communities that have experienced violence firsthand.

“We’ve heard a lot from victims in terms of what impact those shootings have had in their lives [and] family members of the victims,” said State Senator José Rodríguez, who serves on the Senate committee and represents El Paso.

“We’ve heard from gun rights people whose attitude is that to combat violence you have to have more guns. Everybody should be armed.”

Rodríguez, a Democrat, has his own opinions. He supports red flag laws, which would allow the state to temporarily confiscate weapons from people who’ve been deemed a danger to themselves or others. But he said as of now, the committee hasn’t come to any conclusions or started crafting proposals for the next legislative sessions.

“At this point we’ve been listening,” Rodríguez said. “But there will come a time when we’ll start deliberating in terms of coming up with a report and recommendations.”

In El Paso, the nine committee members pushed for concrete suggestions from the public. Invited speakers included El Paso County District Attorney Jaime Esparza. He acknowledged there’s no single solution that will end mass violence, but noted many mass shooters -- including several in Texas -- have a history of violence against intimate partners.

“In Plano when that shooting occurred...some domestic violence was part of that,” Esparza said. “In Sutherland Springs it was as well.”

Esparza would like to see legislation requiring every country to come up with a gun surrender protocol -- something lawmakers touched on in 2019.

“Maybe you all will address this with some more energy and we would have success here,” he said.

After the invited speakers, the public had a chance to weigh in. Some spoke in forceful defense of gun rights.

“If you restrict the rights of responsible, legal gun owners, all you do is empower the criminal,” said Christ Yost, a U.S. army veteran and local firearms instructor.

Others called for gun safety measures, or pushed back against the idea that social media or mental illness are to blame for mass shootings.

“We do a huge disservice to all of those who need help ... when we blame mass shootings on the mentally ill,” said Jody Casey, a member of Moms Demand Action. The El Paso shooting was a hate crime, she said, and “hate and discrimination are learned behaviors.”

Monday was the Senate committee’s third public hearing. Last week, it met in Odessa, the site of the other August attack. The next hearing is scheduled for October 30, in Austin.

After that, the committee may come up with its own recommendations for the 2021 legislative session.

But some lawmakers, like State Senator José Rodríguez of El Paso, don’t want to wait and have urged Governor Greg Abbott to call a special session on gun violence.