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Texas Lawmakers Meet In Odessa For Committee Hearing On Preventing Future Mass Shootings

By Mitch Borden

In Odessa, state lawmakers heard from local and state officials along with residents affected by the Aug. 31 mass shooting. Many in attendance urged the panel of lawmakers to pass new laws and tighten existing policies to prevent future violence, while others called for deregulation.

The Texas House of Representatives Select Committee on Mass Violence Prevention And Community Safety held it's third hearing in Odessa. Twelve legislators, including Odessa's Brooks Landgraf and Midland's Tom Cradick, met at Odessa College to listen to testimony from officials — like Odessa's mayor, police chief and fire chief — and from individuals affected by the recent shooting.

The meeting got off to an emotional start Thursday as the family of Joseph Griffith, a victim killed in the Odessa attack, testified about their loss. Sharon Griffth — Joseph Griffith's mother — pled with legislators to pass new gun policies like comprehensive background checks.

She believes policies like this could have prevented the Odessa shooter from acquiring the gun that killed her son and six others. She told lawmakers if they don’t take action and another shooting happens, they’d be responsible.

“The next time that a mother sits here in this chair and her child has been killed by a mass murderer who failed a background check and also bought a gun from a private seller — then that’s going to be on you,” Griffith said between tears.

The Odessa gunman was federally prohibited from buying a firearm from a licensed dealer, because of a history of violent outbursts and mental illness. In 2014, he failed a background check while trying to buy a gun; but was able to buy the AR-styled rifle he used to carry out the shooting by purchasing from a private seller. In Texas, background checks are not required for firearm sales between private individuals, a loophole the Griffth family would like to see closed.

The family also urged the panel of lawmakers to pass what are known as red flag laws. These policies would allow authorities to temporarily remove guns from their owners if it's determined an individual may pose a danger to themselves or others.

Lawmakers also heard testimony from state officials who talked about legislation that could be updated to better enforce existing laws aimed at preventing gun violence.

David Slayton, director of administration for the Texas Office of Court Administration, detailed gaps in current policy. He said Texas law allows judges to inform convicted criminals that they need to either transfer ownership of their firearms or turn them over to law enforcement. But the same law, Slayton said, also limits a judge's ability to order that the firearms be handed over or confiscated.

“All [the law] says is that [the judge] will notify the individual that they are no longer entitled to possess the firearm, but there’s no law that says ‘and then they can order them to surrender the firearm.”

According to Slayton, that means the state is trusting convicted criminals to get rid of their firearms on their own.

Slayton also said judges are not always mandated to inform qualifying criminals — such as felons or those convicted of domestic violence — that they are no longer allowed to possess a firearm.

The judicial system can only do so much, Slayton said, when the laws it enforces limits its officers' power.

After over five hours of testimony, the hearing wrapped up with more public testimony, where a large contingent of gun owner advocates made their voices heard. There were representatives from groups like Gun Owners of America, along with the NRA at the hearing. Many made it clear to lawmakers that any new policies that would regulate the sale and ownership of guns would be unacceptable from their perspective.

Some also suggested to lawmakers that if more people were armed during the mass shooting in Odessa, the shooter would have been stopped much quicker. The Odessa gunman was able to evade police for over an hour.

The lawmakers didn’t make any decisions at the end of the meeting, but they will continue to hold hearings across the state. The next one will be in El Paso this coming January.

Mitch Borden is Permian Basin Reporter & Producer at Marfa Public Radio.