Lawmakers criticized for gun violence on third anniversary of the mass shooting in El Paso
While Texans are still reeling from the May shooting in Uvalde that claimed the lives of 21 people, the state faces another somber reminder this week of the proliferation of gun violence in Texas.
Wednesday marks the three-year anniversary of the El Paso Walmart massacre where a gunman killed 23 people in what authorities allege was a racially motivated attack. The accused shooter, then 21 years old, is believed to have driven hundreds of miles from North Texas with a semi-automatic weapon to ward off what he said was an “invasion” of the state by Hispanics. He’s currently facing federal charges of hate crimes resulting in death and dozens of state charges.
In the shooting’s aftermath, gun-reform advocates, Democratic lawmakers and people from across the state clamored for a change to Texas’ gun laws. Less than three years later, the Uvalde shooting — which claimed the lives of 19 children and two schoolteachers — created a similar outcry.
State Rep. Joe Moody, a Democrat, has been on the ground in the aftermath of both tragedies. His Texas House district is on El Paso’s Westside, across town from the Walmart store. He’s also the vice-chair of the House Committee on The Robb Elementary Shooting tasked with investigating, in part, law enforcement’s botched response in Uvalde.
And though separated by time, distance and alleged motive, Moody said there is a common thread among the shootings.
“I think the thread that connects the two is the word ‘accountability.’ These are tragedies that continue to occur in Texas. But how many happened in between there, or prior to August 3?” Moody told The Texas Newsroom. “The last thing a family member in Uvalde left me with when we met with them was ‘Please don't let our children die for nothing.’”
Moody and his Republican colleagues on the committee held nine hearings since June and released a report delving deeper into what led up to the Uvalde shooting and what’s happened since then. But he said the real test of accountability comes in what policies lawmakers can pass to prevent another tragedy.
In the days after the Uvalde shooting, Gov. Greg Abbott said, "all options are on the table." But he used similar language after El Paso and following the shooting at Santa Fe high school in 2018 when 10 people were killed. Instead of a special session on gun laws after El Paso, Abbott convened roundtable discussions and instructed members to come up with ideas for lawmakers to consider. Less than a month after the Walmart shooting, a gunman killed seven people in a shooting spree in Odessa.
Lawmakers reconvene in Austin early next year, but Moody doesn’t sound optimistic that the post-Uvalde calls for gun reform will translate into any new laws passing in 2023. That’s because after the El Paso shooting discussions on things like red flag laws eventually faded away. Lawmakers instead made it easier to carry guns.
“The only thing we did as a Legislature in response was pass unlicensed, open carry,” said Moody. "We went the opposite direction. So, I think that certainly stuck in the minds and hearts of a lot of people here [in El Paso],” he said.
At the federal level, U.S. Rep. Veronica Escobar, D-El Paso, invoked the Walmart shooting last week to explain her vote on a bill in Congress that would ban assault-style weapons.
“The El Paso shooter took the lives of 23 people with an assault weapon,” she tweeted on July 29. “Today, I’m voting for the Assault Weapon Ban so every American can live without fear of being gunned down at the grocery store, at church, in school, or at an Independence Day parade. #BanAssaultWeaponsNow."
Though the bill passed in the U.S. House, its chances in the U.S. Senate are almost nonexistent.
Is closure ever possible?
As El Pasoans mark the anniversary of the shooting with vigils and memorials, the alleged gunman still sits in a jail cell awaiting his fate. While he faces dozens of murder charges, among others, at the state and federal levels, he has yet to stand trial.
Katherine Schweit, a retired FBI special agent and former federal prosecutor who created the FBI's active shooter program after the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School, told The Texas Newsroom that trials of that magnitude usually take time.
“The evidence has to be exact. The witnesses have to be prepared. There is no second opportunity for the prosecutor and there is no second opportunity for the defense,” she said. “The courts do allow the attorneys on both sides to methodically go through the process. I recognize that that can be agonizing — particularly for victims, survivors and their families — because it requires them often to continue to relive the nightmare that they went through to begin with. And I think, if it was your brother or your uncle or your sister, you would want the court to take the time to ensure that they received a fair trial.”
The federal trial for the accused Walmart shooter, Patrick Crusius, is scheduled for January 2024. At the state level, the district judge overseeing the case has issued a gag order after he admonished El Paso County District Attorney Yvonne Rosales for publicly stating she wanted to take the case to court in 2023. Rosales, who inherited the case when she took office in 2021, was “grandstanding” Judge Sam Medrano said, according to a report from KTEP and the Dallas Morning News.
Rosales has since hired outside counsel to aid with the prosecution, El Paso Matters reported. The prosecutor’s office has also filed new motions in the case, according to the report.
The gunman in the Uvalde attack on Robb Elementary, 18-year-old Salvador Ramos, was killed by authorities more than 70 minutes before he first started shooting.
For the victims’ families, Schweit explained a sense that “justice has been served” is difficult to come by.
“No one who is a survivor or a victim or a family member feels that they've received justice, whether the subject is killed or whether the subject has a trial,” she said. “Everybody has to come to a sense of justice over time themselves. There are just as many people who are frustrated when a subject is killed, because there's an idea that no one will ever be to blame.”
Moody said he hopes his and his colleagues’ work on the committee and at the State Capitol can bring some accountability, though he’s not sure if that also translates to closure for families or survivors.
“I don't know that you can find closure when someone is ripped away from you in such a violent manner. I don't live in those shoes,” he said. “And so I don't want to speak for anybody. Their experience is theirs alone.