Is Texas’ Leadership Finally Catching Up to Its Residents on Guns?

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If you were a time traveler from all the way back in 2018, there's a good chance the noise emanating from Austin this week would have made your head spin. Following a pair of mass murders in El Paso and the Permian Basin, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick each sounded a lot like they actually intended to do something about the violence.

Nothing's happened yet, and there's every chance that the Observer will feel like a sucker six months from now for having written this, but Abbott and Patrick are staking out positions that are actually in line with the majority of Texans.

In an interview with The Dallas Morning News published Friday, Patrick made his most significant statements to date on gun control. The lieutenant governor, arguably the most powerful man in Texas thanks to the control he wields over the Texas Senate's agenda, came out in favor of requiring background checks to complete private gun sales between strangers.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott
Gage Skidmore

Patrick is actually going out on a limb here. The NRA and other gun-rights maximalist groups staunchly oppose any tightening of current background check procedures.

"Look, I'm a solid NRA guy," he told the News' Robert Garrett, "but not expanding the background check to eliminate the stranger-to-stranger sale makes no sense to me and ... most folks."

If Republicans don't act, don't "do something" in the wake of so many mass shootings, they actually put Second Amendment rights at risk, according to Patrick.

"(O)ne day, (Democrats) could have the White House again, and they could have Congress, and they will pass draconian laws that dramatically impact our Second Amendment rights," he said. "And if Republicans do some common sense things, that helps us stave off that day."

While Abbott has yet to endorse any specific changes to Texas' gun laws, he issued eight executive orders Thursday that could help law enforcement stop mass killers before they begin shooting. The governor also admitted that Texas might need new laws to address gun violence.

"(M)ore must be done," Abbott said in a statement Thursday. "I will continue to work expeditiously with the Legislature on laws to keep guns out of the hands of dangerous criminals, while safeguarding the Second Amendment rights of law-abiding Texans.”

It isn't serendipity that's making Abbott, Patrick and other Texas Republicans more amenable to gun control in 2019. It's politics, according to Rice University political scientist Mark Jones.

"In the past, (Texas) Republicans only had to worry about the Republican primary — whoever won the Republican primary had a ticket to victory in November," Jones says. "2018 showed us that's no longer the case. A Republican running statewide or even in many districts needs to balance the preferences of Republican primary voters with those of swing voters in the general election."

More than 70% of Texans said they support "red flag" laws, which create a process for a judge to take the guns of those who pose an immediate threat to themselves or others at the behest of police or the gun owner's family. In a 2018 Quinnipiac Poll, 93% of Texans surveyed said they supported universal background checks for all gun purchases.

"The 2018 election and the El Paso and Odessa massacres have pushed people such as Dan Patrick to realize that, 'If we're going to maintain power, we have to compromise on some of these issues,'" Jones says.

When parties get too far out of step with the majority of people in the state they represent, they risk marginalization, Jones says, pointing to the Republican Party in California as an example.

"When you're out of sync with public opinion, you become a residual or emasculated electoral force," Jones says."

That's not where Texas Republicans are now, at least not yet. The party's future, according to Jones, is tied in large part to the 2020 presidential election. If President Donald Trump wins another term, things could get worse for Texas Republicans, he says. The party could end in a much more comfortable place if a Democrat is elected.

"If Donald Trump is reelected, then the need for Texas Republicans to start moving toward the center becomes far more paramount," Jones says. "He's a net liability for Texas Republicans. The longer he's in office, the more he alienates people who might otherwise vote Republican."

A Democrat beating Trump, especially a progressive one, could give the Texas GOP cover to retreat.

"If someone like Elizabeth Warren were to become president, then I think you're going to see a Republican Party that sees less need to go toward the center, simply because Warren would become a net liability for Texas Democrats," Jones says. "Republicans could dust off the old anti-Barack Obama playbook and use that for at least four years." 

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