In the aftermath of a spate of shootings in places such as El Paso and Midland in which up to 30 people were killed and dozens injured, Democrats urged governor Greg Abbott to recall legislators to pass legislation to address the problem.
In an open letter, Democratic members of the legislature proposed measures that would close loopholes on background checks for gun purchases, and ban the sale of large capacity magazines. They also called for laws to seek to confront racism and white nationalism, given the alleged assailant in the El Paso shooting was “driven by racial hatred”.
Mr Abbott, the only person empowered to recall the legislature, has not ruled out doing so, but has rejected calls to act immediately.
Democrats have criticised the governor’s decision, pointing out he was happy to do so in 2017 amid controversy over which lavatories transgender people should be permitted to use, and the fact that under the state’s constitution, the legislature only sits every other year. The 86th session, which started on January 8, ended on May 28, and legislators are not scheduled to sit again until January 12 2021.
“We only sit for 140 days, every other year,” Donna Howard, a Democratic legislator who represents a district in Austin, the state’s liberal-leaning capital, told The Independent. “The message we have been hearing from our constituents is ‘Please come back into session and do something’.”
Texas is not alone in having a legislature that only sits every other year, but the three other states that operate such a system – Nevada, North Dakota and Montana – all have small populations.
By contrast, the population of Texas is 28m, and it is the second largest and second most populous of the 50 states, after California. It also has the second highest number of presidential electoral college votes. Political scientists say while the decision to only meet every other year may initially have been made because of the vast distances legislators were required to travel, it underscored an antipathy among many Texans towards politics and politicians.
The last Democratic president to win Texas was Jimmy Carter in 1976, and the party has not held a statewide seat since the 1990s. Yet, Democrats made gains in the 2018 midterms and believe they could flip more seats in the House of Representatives in 2020. The party also hopes to take control of the state legislature, which plays a crucial role in drawing up electoral districts, which in recent years have heavily favoured Republicans.
Mr Abbott’s office said he had not ruled out recalling the legislature, though he wanted to avoid a session that resulted only in arguing.
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He recently announced eight executive orders focused on strengthening the police’s ability to respond to shootings. According to the Texas Tribune, following the shootings, he also established two groups to study gun violence and extremism.
“Governor Abbott made clear in Odessa that all strategies are on the table that will lead to laws that make Texans safer,” said spokesperson, John Wittman.
“The Democrats who are part of today’s partisan pitch, can be part of the bipartisan legislative process…that is geared towards achieving real solutions, or they can be part of politics as usual that will accomplish nothing.”
Critics of Mr Abbott, who has a “triple A” rating from the powerful National Rifle Association (NRA), a gun industry and users lobbying group, say he has been slow to address gun violence, and blocked efforts to regulate firearms. After the El Paso shooting, he described the incident as one of the of the “deadliest days in history of Texas”.
The Giffords Law Centre to Prevent Gun Violence, a California group that works to regulate guns, says Texas has some of the nation’s most relaxed gun regulations. The group says research shows states with tougher laws suffer fewer shooting deaths.
It ranks Texas as having the 34th strongest gun laws out of 50, and places it at 27 in terms of gun deaths. It ranks it with an “F”.
“Texas did not enact any firearm-related legislation in 2018. The state has very weak gun safety laws and is a major exporter of crime guns,” says the group. “To raise its grade above an F and save lives from gun violence, Texas should pass universal background checks, prohibit hate crime offenders from accessing guns, and repeal its dangerous campus carry law.”
Veteran observers of Texas politics say there may be other reasons Mr Abbott does not want to recall the legislature. Last month, the Republican speaker, Dennis Bonnen, was caught on tape apparently asking a far right activist, Michael Quinn Sullivan, to help undermine some of his own colleagues. Mr Bonnen has issued an apology, but the Texas Rangers have launched a probe.
Harvey Kronberg, publisher of the Quorum Report, a widely read website that focusses on Texas state politics, said: “One of the reasons Abbott doesn’t want to do it, is that if the legislature is recalled, Bonnen may be forced from the chair.”
Janet and Michael Hoffman, who were visiting Austin from New Jersey, which has some of the nation’s tougher gun laws, were recently walking in the grounds of the domed Capitol building. They said Texans had a reputation for their outsized love of guns.
“Guns need to be regulated,” said Mr Hoffman. “There used to be common sense measures that were backed by Republicans.”