The Texas Democrats’ politically fatal wound occurred on June 3, 1993 in a hallway of the Capitol extension. A banner listing the 3,692 Texans who had died from gunfire in 1991 dangled over an upstairs railing. Tourists pressed forward to see what was happening as dozens of uniformed police officers flanked Democratic governor Ann Richards, with two paralyzed officers sitting in wheelchairs framing her. Richards was one of the most personally popular governors in modern state history, and she was about to veto a bill setting a non-binding referendum for the November ballot on whether Texas should legalize and license the carrying of concealed handguns. “I want to thank you for standing by me,” Richards told the officers, “when we say no to the amateur gunslingers who think they are somehow going to be braver and smarter with a gun in their hand.”
But the Republican Party of Texas put a referendum on its primary ballot the following spring and it passed with 79 percent of the primary vote. Richards, who had barely won her office in 1990, was devastated that fall, losing to Republican George W. Bush by 7 percentage points. Some other Democrats won reelection that year, but it was the end. No Democrat has won a statewide office since then. The following May, Governor Bush was signing into law a concealed-carry provision, wiping away a 125-year-old ban on carrying a handgun in Texas.
Since that time, Republicans have won statewide races building their campaigns off of a simple mantra: God, guns, and country.
Issues such as biblical interpretation of same-sex marriage fit into the category of God, while sanctuary cities and border security fall under the heading of country. Today, though, the talk is about guns, which has been a reliable voter motivator, extending to issues like openly carrying handguns and campus carry.
For an excellent and wide-ranging discussion of guns in Texas, please take some time to revisit Texas Monthly’s April 2016 issue on the subject.
When it comes to the politics of guns, there is a tendency to claim that the politicians who fight against restrictions on firearms are “bought” by the National Rifle Association because of its massive campaign spending. Much of that money is not spent directly on candidates, but on the issue ads that help influence elections. By one report, the NRA since 1998 has spent $203 million to influence elections — chump change when compared to the $1.1 billion spent by the financial industry in 2016. Another report revealed NRA donations to current members of Congress at $4.1 million, including $427,750 to Texas senior senator John Cornyn. In 2014 alone, however, Cornyn raised a total of $14 million. The NRA donations represented just one percent of all the money raised by Republican senators at the federal level that year.
In the wake of the shooting deaths of 17 students and teachers at the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, Senator Marco Rubio received sharp criticism after junior Cameron Kasky, a shooting survivor, asked Rubio if he will forgo NRA donations. Rubio responded by saying,”The influence of these groups comes not from money. The influence comes from the millions of people that agree with the agenda; the millions of Americans that support the NRA.”
Rubio’s answer was not politically reassuring to the students, even if it was generally correct about attitudes. Although about three in ten Americans own a firearm, less than 20 percent are members of the NRA, and only about 61 percent of the gun owners are Republicans.
A new survey after the Florida shooting found that two out of every three Americans want stricter gun control laws. Even in Texas, a majority favor stricter background checks for firearm sales, but a 2013 survey by the Texas Tribune/University of Texas found that 49 percent of Texans opposed a ban on semiautomatic firearms, with 40 percent favoring such a ban. The partisan breakdown was dramatic, though. Of those from the tea party, 92 percent said they would support a congressional candidate who opposed a ban, as did 67 percent of the Republicans surveyed. Among Democrats, 74 percent said they supported a ban.
For firearm reformers who want restrictions on military-style weapons and high-capacity magazines, what this means is that voting participation is important, and it may even be more important to vote in the Republican primary — which in Texas essentially decides the outcome of elections.
Consider this: The number of resident hunting licenses in Texas in 2017 was 1.5 million. The number of people holding Texas Department of Public Safety licenses to carry handguns last year was 1.2 million. The license-to-carry people are motivated enough to have undergone at least six hours of training. That means they are also likely voters.
Using the Pew survey as a basis, even if we consider only 60 percent of LTC holders to be Republican primary voters, that means they would have accounted for seven out of every ten GOP primary votes in 2014 — and 110,000 more votes than were cast in the Democratic primary that year. If all the LTC holders had voted in the 2014 Republican primary, they would have accounted for nine out of every ten votes. That is a lot of influence over Republican politicians that has little to do with NRA money.
This is not all rural, either. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s national targets include District 7 in Houston, held by Republican John Culberson, and District 32 in Dallas, held by Republican Pete Sessions. In 2017, the Texas DPS issued 7,286 handgun licenses to people living in zip codes that are part of Culberson’s district, and 4,960 to people in Sessions’s district. Here is a list of the number of handgun licenses issued in the state’s most urban counties:
Those numbers only begin to give a hint of the support for firearms in Texas. According to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, there are 6,148 dealers and pawn brokers licensed to sell firearms in Texas, and another 176 licensed arms manufacturers.
The FBI database on criminal background checks on firearm sales is almost stunning in its size. These numbers include all types of firearms, as well as background checks that denied the purchase of a firearm. These numbers do include Devin Patrick Kelley’s purchase of a Ruger AR-556 used in the church massacre at Sutherland Springs.
Sometimes after mass shootings, there are stories about the Australians outlawing semiautomatic rifles and conducting a buy-back program, which took 640,000 rifles off the streets after compensating owners $304 million — an average of about $475 for each firearm. If only one out of every four background checks in Texas resulted in the sale of a military-style rifle, a program like Australia’s would cost $1.5 billion just in Texas.
Texas has been doing it for years. According to the Texas Association of School Boards, there are 172 districts that allow staff to carry firearms, including one district with a school marshal program that requires 80 hours of training, with another 150 districts having their own police departments, and 250 districts with law enforcement certified resource officers. Melissa ISD has posted a warning sign that there are armed and trained staff inside the school. Whether having firearms on school campuses is a good idea is a debate for another day.
The school shootings and church massacres get the attention, but there is a social, human cost that is often overlooked. In 2014, the most recent year with readily available statistics, there were 2,722 firearm deaths by assault or suicide in Texas. Suicides by firearm accounted for 65 percent of the total firearm deaths and a little more than half of all the suicides in Texas. Six out of every ten people who killed themselves with a firearm were white males. Firearms were also used in almost 70 percent of the 1,376 homicides in 2014. Male victims accounted for eight out of every ten of the firearm homicides, but, unlike suicide, there was a dramatic shift to minority populations: white males, 167; black males, 284; Hispanic males, 287.
There are many issues surrounding firearms that are ripe for the political arena, but so long as Republicans dominate the statewide politics in the general elections, it will be the strength of the pro-gun voter in the Republican primary that determines the outcome of policy in Texas.
In the meantime, the National Rifle Association this week launched a new video essentially declaring war on the news media.
Sayuri Kolombege contributed research for this report.
R.G. Ratcliffe can be reached here.