As Houston readies to host the next 2020 debates, focus turns to gun control

Tom Dart in Houston
Photograph: Eric Gay/Associated Press

A political beginner will be closely watching the big names when the Democratic presidential debate takes place in Houston on Thursday, with the issue of gun violence likely to be raised after two recent mass shootings in Texas.

Marcel McClinton is running for a place on Houston’s city council at the tender age of 18. It is a rather more junior office than the White House and he is more than half a century younger than three of the candidates who will be on stage at Texas Southern University.

But McClinton and many others watching the latest debate in the race for the 2020 nomination will be keen to see what the candidates say about gun controlDemocrats used to avoid the issue, but now are more keen on taking aggressive pro-gun reform stances.

Given a spasm of mass shootings recently in the US, such interest is not a surprise. Even though he is just 18, McClinton already has extensive experience campaigning for stricter gun laws in a state that has loosened them repeatedly in recent years.

The latest raft of permissive legislation became effective in Texas on 1 September, less than a month after 22 people were murdered in a racist attack at a Walmart in El Paso and after a random spree near the towns of Midland and Odessa where eight, including the shooter, died.

“I think that I have thought about and prayed for just about as many communities as I possibly can. I decided I was going to turn my frustration into action,” McClinton said of his activism.

McClinton helped organize a student-led march in Houston after the Parkland high school shooting killed 17 in Florida in February 2018. Then he supported survivors when eight students and two teachers died in May last year at a school in Santa Fe, a small town near Houston.

Two years before that, violence visited the wealthy suburban neighborhood in west Houston where McClinton was teaching a Sunday school class. Across the street, a mentally ill man armed with a pistol and an AR-15 rifle embarked on an hour-long indiscriminate rampage that left one victim dead and six injured.

McClinton, then 14, sheltered in the church. Trauma from the incident has given him sleepless nights and headaches. “This is black and white, there is no grey area to me on this issue at all, this is about saving people’s lives,” he said.

Now he wants to hear forthright policy proposals in Thursday’s debate.

“No longer sugar-coating the issue is super-important,” he said. “As a survivor of gun violence and someone who talks to gun violence survivors nearly every single day from across the country, I’ve wanted candidates from across the country, from all levels of office, to just take bolder action and start using bolder language also when describing gun violence.”

McClinton would like to see stronger background checks, “red flag” laws, buyback programs for assault-style weapons such as AR-15 and AK-47 rifles, and safer storage.

But Texas’s Republican-led legislature has acted to make it easier for citizens to carry guns – more armed teachers in schools as a response to Santa Fe, more guns in places of worship after 26 people died at a church in Sutherland Springs, near San Antonio, in 2017. They have blamed the frequent mass slaughters not on the ready availability of weapons of war but on mental illness, a lack of religion in schools and video games.

While it is unlikely that Texas will turn blue in next year’s presidential election, persuasive performances from some of the more moderate Democrats on Thursday might help accelerate the inroads the party is making in big-city suburbs that are traditionally Republican but where many voters feel repelled by the direction the GOP has taken under Trump.

“The polling on this shows that most Texans see similar problems on guns. Solutions may not always be agreed upon but generally people favor having more stringent background checks,” said Brandon Rottinghaus, a political scientist at the University of Houston.

“There’s a lot of pressure on Republicans to act … these events all show the unsustainability of a policy which favors gun rights over public safety. That’s going to be a quandary for them going forward,” he said.

“The suburbs have been splitting for Democrats, so that’s going to be an issue to have to resolve. The gun issue may be the final straw for a lot of leaning-Republican suburban residents. College-educated voters, female voters, younger voters who are new to the suburbs are all less likely to favor a Republican approach to guns than a Democratic approach.”

Alexandra Chasse, a volunteer with Moms Demand Action who lives in west Houston, is optimistic that support for new laws is gaining ground in Texas. “Absolutely I see change because people are talking about gun violence, specifically access to guns as the root cause of gun violence,” she said.

“My husband is a veteran and he hunts, he loves the outdoors, we’re comfortable with firearms. A lot of my co-advocates own guns. We know that the consensus behind commonsense solutions is shared by a lot of ordinary gun owners such as my family,” she added.

“People around me, my neighbors, my co-workers, the people I see talking on the news, they are understanding what the problem is, they are understanding what the causes are and they are understanding what the solutions are. So yes, I have a lot of high expectations for the voters around me.”