After the mass shooting of ten people at Santa Fe High School, Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick dismissed a modest proposal by Governor Greg Abbott to pass red flag laws that would allow judges to remove firearms from potentially dangerous individuals. In response to the shooting death of 26 people at a church in Sutherland Springs, Patrick oversaw the loosening of gun laws to allow the carrying of licensed handguns in houses of worship. But in the wake of mass shootings in El Paso and Midland–Odessa in August that left a total of 29 people dead and 49 wounded or injured, Patrick is going in a surprisingly different direction. The former talk-radio host is pushing for background checks on almost all firearm sales in Texas. Though there are significant exceptions for transactions between friends and family members, it’s a proposal that comes close to universal background checks.
This is a significant development. If passed, near-universal background checks would be the first major restriction on firearm ownership proposed by the state’s Republican leadership since the state started loosening gun laws in 1995. That was the year Republicans passed legislation to allow for the concealed carry of handguns by licensed individuals. It’s hard to remember now, but until 1995, Texas had survived for 125 years with a law banning the carrying of pistols in almost all circumstances by civilians. During Patrick’s tenure as lieutenant governor, the law was amended to allow for open carry by license holders as well as concealed carry on a college campus.
In outlining his background check proposal Friday in interviews with the Dallas Morning News and Fox News, the lite guv said he’s willing to ”take an arrow” from the National Rifle Association, arguing that widespread background checks are needed because the Odessa shooter was able to buy a gun through a private purchase even though he had previously failed a background check. The NRA was quick to blast Patrick’s proposal as a “political gambit” that would trample “the freedom of law-abiding Americans.”
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As bold as Patrick’s defiance of the NRA seems, it’s not quite as risky as it looks. First, he doesn’t face reelection till 2022, a political eternity away. Second, the Legislature isn’t scheduled to meet again until 2021, so for anything to happen before then, Governor Greg Abbott would have to call a special session and put universal background checks on the agenda. Patrick could take credit as an agenda-setter, but Abbott would share the heat from gun groups and the GOP grassroots. Third, a new Washington Post/ABC survey shows a majority of Americans support expanding firearm restrictions, including expanded background checks.
Finally, if Patrick runs for reelection or another office in the future, background checks might be an issue in a Republican primary, but the liability would likely be offset by Patrick’s ultra-conservative record on firearms legislation, support for abortion restrictions, and opposition to gay rights. Plus, the lite guv can point to his discomfort with red flag laws.
For example, in the immediate aftermath of the El Paso shooting last month that left 22 dead at a Walmart, Patrick told Fox News that he worried that taking guns from unstable people could trample the rights of law-abiding citizens. “The red flag laws are difficult,” said Patrick. “You have to be very careful that you’re not taking away someone’s rights while also being sure that people who shouldn’t have guns in their hands do not have those guns.”
In that same interview, Patrick also suggested he was looking at universal background checks as a means of reducing the number of guns in the hands of criminals.
Would Patrick’s background check proposal actually reduce gun violence? It’s helpful to understand how it would work. Background checks would be required for all “stranger-to-stranger” gun sales, but not for transactions between family members or friends. Such a law would be almost as strict as New York State’s universal background check statute. However, that doesn’t mean it would have a major impact on halting mass shootings.
Understand that the stranger-to-stranger gun sales are probably a very small part of the total transfers in Texas. Most people buy guns through sporting-goods stores (think: Cabela’s or Academy) or licensed dealers. Gun shows are also a major source of gun-dealing. Texas is often listed as a state with a gun-show loophole because it doesn’t require background checks to be conducted at gun shows or flea markets. But some Texas gun shows already require the vendors to hold a federal firearms license, which in turn requires a background check for all sales. In 2018 alone, the FBI ran 1.5 million background checks on firearms purchasers in Texas, including more than 400,000 on long-gun purchases such as the AR-15 style rifles often used in mass shootings. Plus, background checks alone do not hamper most mass shooters.
The man who killed five Dallas-area police officers and wounded nine others in 2016 bought his guns legally, as did the El Paso shooter. The Sutherland Springs gunman should have been denied in the federal background check, but the failure of the Pentagon to report his mental health issues allowed him to purchase the firearm he used in the attack. The Santa Fe shooter took guns his father had legally purchased. So far, only the Midland–Odessa shooter bought a firearm outside of the federal background check system, and the Wall Street Journal reported that he may have bought the firearm from a man who was illegally manufacturing firearms. Illegally manufactured firearms and stolen guns are going to be outside the background check system simply because of their criminal nature.
Patrick deserves praise for taking a positive step toward limiting mass shootings and criminal activity. But the “gambit,” as the NRA calls it, is a small, tenuous one. After Santa Fe, Abbott asked state lawmakers to consider a law requiring that stolen guns be reported to local law enforcement within ten days. (Studies have shown most gun crimes are committed with stolen weapons and other studies found almost three-quarters of mass shootings since 1982 involved legally obtained firearms.) Legislators never even discussed the idea, Abbott didn’t take up the cause, and Patrick declared the idea D.O.A. in the Senate. If Patrick is serious about modest gun control measures, he’ll have to work diligently to make sure his agenda doesn’t fizzle in a similar manner.