Four years ago, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott urged his constituents to arm up.
“I’m EMBARRASSED: Texas #2 in nation for new gun purchases, behind CALIFORNIA,” he tweeted. “Let’s pick up the pace Texans.”
“The Texas House & Senate are getting to work on laws to keep communities safe from gun violence,” Abbott tweeted, promising proposals this week to help prevent more massacres.
The governor reassured his supporters that he remains a staunch defender of the 2nd Amendment. But in a state as serious about guns as Texas — whose unofficial motto, “come and take it,” summarizes the stance of many residents when it comes to their firearms — even a slight diversion from the gun lobby agenda can set people off.
Gun-control advocates have been energized by recent overtures from the governor and other Texas Republicans.
“The attitudes towards gun violence are changing in this state,” said Ed Scruggs, who leads the board of Austin-based nonprofit Texas Gun Sense and sees hope for expanding background checks and other measures to keep firearms away from those who pose a danger.
Gun rights advocates say they are concerned that the state’s politics are shifting and may no longer offer a bulwark against the regulation of firearms.
“There is a great risk of more gun control laws getting passed,” said C.J. Grisham, founder of Open Carry Texas, which has successfully lobbied for pro-gun laws. “I worry that Gov. Greg Abbott may be feeling too much political pressure to do something.”
It didn’t give Grisham any comfort when — after a gunman killed 22 people Aug. 3 at Walmart in El Paso — Abbott held talks with gun control advocates and limited the pro-gun side to a single lobbyist invited at the last minute.
“That’s what worries us,” Grisham said. “He invited Texas Gun Sense, but he forgot to invite members of the grassroots gun rights community.”
In an even bigger blow to gun rights advocates, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, a longtime Trump supporter, told the Dallas Morning News on Friday that he was willing to defy the National Rifle Assn. to support expanded background checks on private gun sales.
“Someone in the Republican Party has to take the lead on this,” Patrick said.
Guns are deeply ingrained in the culture of Texas, where learning to shoot is a common a rite of passage and even some gun control proponents own firearms.
Last year, Texas issued 1.3 million concealed handgun licenses, more than any other state except Florida and 12 times the total in California.
Based on the number of federal background checks conducted this year, Texas has heeded Abbott’s tweet and surpassed California in total gun purchases.
This month, several laws passed by the Republican-dominated state Legislature took effect that clarify the right to carry guns during disasters, in apartment complexes, places of worship and schools.
But there are signs that Texas is getting less gun-friendly.
The state’s demographics are changing as transplants arrive from California and other places where guns are more scarce and gun laws stricter.
Newcomers are electing more Democrats in Houston and Dallas — and in their suburbs.
A poll conducted by the University of Texas at Austin and Texas Tribune in February found 49% of Texans said gun control laws should be more strict.
Gun rights advocates said it has become harder to get pro-gun laws passed.
Grisham pointed to the refusal by Texas lawmakers to join the 16 states — including three this year — that have passed “constitutional carry” laws to eliminate all gun licensing requirements.
“We have a reputation for being pro-gun that we honestly don’t deserve,” he said.
Derek Wills, who hosts the pro-gun podcast Lone Star Gun Talk, said he too is worried to hear Texas Republicans suggest gun control concessions.
He opened his podcast Monday by criticizing Texas Republican leaders as “weak on gun rights,” describing the governor as a “pushover.”
That sentiment was also in the air on a recent afternoon at the family-run Shiloh Shooting Range, in Houston’s western suburbs.
A group of regular customers nodded as Jeff Sanford, the manager, dismissed expanded background checks and other gun control proposals.
“It’s a Band-Aid that won’t do anything,” he said. “It’s just so they can say we did something.”
One of the regulars was a 45-year-old priest, who wore his collar during target practice.
“I am concerned about new restrictions because I think it’s not about the people — it’s about politicians,” he said after shooting his new 9mm handgun and a rifle.
The priest, who asked to be identified only as the Rev. George because he wasn’t authorized by the church to speak publicly about the issue, said he doesn’t carry a gun during Mass but supports congregants who do, given that houses of worship have not been spared from mass shootings.
As for when new restrictions might be considered, that’s still unclear.
The governor could call a special session of the legislature, which isn’t scheduled to reconvene until 2021. So far, Abbott has refused requests from Democrats to do that.
Still, Scruggs said he was especially encouraged after talking with the governor and other officials at last month’s meeting of the newly formed Texas Safety Commission.
He said the discussion, slated to last two hours, stretched to five, and the mood was far different than at a meeting last year after the killing of 10 people in a shooting at Santa Fe High School south of Houston.
“There is a desire to do something,” Scruggs said. “There’s an admittance that our background check system is seriously flawed.”
More evidence of that came on Aug. 31, when a gunman terrorized the west Texas cities of Midland and Odessa.
Driving around shooting people from his car and a hijacked mail truck with an AR-15-style rifle, the gunman killed seven before police fatally shot him.
Authorities said the shooter had failed a background check when he tried to buy a firearm from a registered dealer, but that he had no problem purchasing his weapon from a private seller. Unlike California and 11 other states, Texas does not require a background check for those sales.
It was soon after those killings that Abbott announced state lawmakers would take action.
Gun control groups from out of state say now is the time to make inroads in Texas.
The San Francisco-based Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence recently helped organize a group called Texas Gun Owners for Safety.
The group’s 52 members said they are focused on keeping guns out of the hands of criminals, and hope to persuade lawmakers to adopt background checks for all firearms sales, regulate AR-15-style rifles and enact so-called red-flag laws that would allow courts to order the confiscation of guns from people deemed dangerous.
Patricia Krov, 64, a retired X-ray technician who lives in central Texas, joined the group with her husband because of recent mass shootings and the loss of a loved one to suicide by firearm.
“We feel like we can support common-sense gun laws and protect our right to own guns,” she said.
“We don’t have small children, but some of the people around us do, and seeing them have to do these active shooter drills — they shouldn’t have to grow up in that environment,” she said.
Another member, Kevin Cruser, said he learned to shoot as a boy outside Austin — and hoped his children would have the same relationship with guns.
“They were a huge part of our lives, and I want my boys to grow up and go hunting and have that appreciation,” he said.
But Cruser said he also believes that the hijacking of the 2nd Amendment by extremists is one reason that his sons — ages 11 and 13 — have to endure active-shooter drills at school.
Cruser, a 42-year-old lawyer who has worked with Republican lawmakers and considers himself an independent, said he too has had to adapt to the new reality of gun violence.
Before a recent gathering at his house, a guest asked if he had guns, and if so, how they were stored.
“Ten years ago I would have been offended,” Cruser said. “Now I understand. The laws have become inadequate to the point where we all have to live in a state of fear.”
He said he wanted to try to improve gun laws before more mass shootings lead to major restrictions.
“My big fear is that this sort of weird ideological insanity that ‘any gun you can own is OK’ is going to create a backlash so big, I don’t get to have my shotgun anymore,” he said.
“We’re a couple of mass shootings away from nothing. I see the tide turning.”