AUSTIN, Texas — Over the next week, a state steeped in gun culture with a Latino population that is on track to be its largest ethnic group will begin to grapple with the domestic terror attack in El Paso that left 22 dead and 25 more injured.
On Thursday, the first of two roundtables organized by Texas Gov. Gregg Abbott in response to the El Paso attack was held in Austin. A second is scheduled Aug. 29 in El Paso. Opening and closing remarks were open to the media but the roundtable discussions were closed.
The state and its leaders are contending with the fallout from the massacre perpetrated by a gunman who told police he drove some 650 miles to kill “Mexicans.” The state’s own policies and some leaders’ rhetoric regarding Latinos will be up for examination and demands will be made for it to end.
This is the second time Abbott has organized roundtables of state leaders, law enforcement and gun groups after a mass shooting.
The last set of roundtables was held after a mass shooting at the Santa Fe High School on May 18, 2018. Eight students and two teachers died and 13 others were injured.
Abbott opened the first roundtable for the El Paso shooting in Austin by drawing a distinction between the two shootings and defending actions the state took after the Santa Fe shootings. He said the steps were taken "rapidly and robustly."
"Unique issues" around El Paso shooting
"In roundtables we had in the aftermath of Santa Fe, we took what we thought were big steps to address the challenges of violence in the state of Texas," Abbott said. "Obviously in the aftermath of that, there was a different type of gun violence."
No decisions were made at Thursday's roundtable, but some of the Latino lawmakers from El Paso's delegation, all Democrats, said that more issues were discussed and raised in the meeting than they had expected would take place when they went in.
"The four hours we met in there today gave me more hope that we can build towards something to ensure we don't ever endure one of these tragedies again," said Rep. Joe Moody, D-El Paso, who held a 12-hour hearing after the Santa Fe shooting that included students who experienced it and saw adults bully them to support their view.
"If we do this right and we take our roles seriously and we are more focused on results and not rhetoric, we have the real chance to achieve something good for the state of Texas and maybe be an example to the rest of the country as well," Moody said,
Much of the consensus among meeting participants was on identifying and disrupting threats through law enforcement, school counselors, mental health providers, monitoring social social media and a "one-site" location where the public can report threats, Abbott said.
On guns, Abbott said there are "open gaps" in already existing laws, such as keeping guns from someone named in an emergency protective orders, and improving sharing of and expediting information for background checks.
The problems of people purchasing guns for others who may not be permitted to buy a gun and of stolen guns were issues he suggested may get attention.
But he said access to assault rifles remains a dividing point.
"Assault weapons, the issue was raised and I think it's fair to say that there was no coalescence of any type of solution about where we go with that," he said.
Rep. Lina Ortega, D-El Paso, said after the meeting that there also was pushback when proposals were made to require annual gun registrations.
While there is hope that the enormity of the El Paso shooting will propel greater change, there are some who do not share the governor's perspective on the robustness of the state's response after the Santa Fe shootings.
“We believe part of the healing process for our community is having things change and not having the lives be lost in vain,’’ Rep. Mary Gonzalez, D-El Paso, vice chair of the Mexican American Legislative Caucus, told NBC News on Wednesday ahead of the meeting.
Some lawmakers assert that the state instead should be holding a special legislative session, but there is little confidence among those asking that the request will be granted. The Texas Legislature, which already met this year, won't meet again until 2021.
“I think Texans are weary of roundtables that don’t lead to legislative action,” state Rep. Rafael Anchía, D-Dallas, chairman of the Mexican American Legislative Caucus, said. “After Santa Fe, there was a lot of wringing of hands and gnashing of teeth. The governor convened listening sessions and roundtables, they were certainly valuable but there was very little legislation on gun safety.”
In fact, Anchía said, the governor had vetoed his bill prohibiting guns on commercial airport tarmacs, a measure requested by law enforcement. Anchía said he’d worked on the bill four years to get bipartisan support. Abbott vetoed it, saying “it would impose an unacceptable restraint on the Second Amendment rights of law-abiding travelers,” the Texas Tribune reported.
Some supporters of gun restrictions believed the deaths in Santa Fe would crack through Texas’ gun rights protections, allowing so-called “red flag laws” that allow family or law enforcement to prevent someone they think may harm themselves or others from obtaining weapons.
Several laws passed in response to the Santa Fe shooting take effect Sept. 1, relaxing some state gun restrictions. They include funding for more school marshals and a law that waives requirements for training to openly carry a gun in an emergency or disaster situation, Ed Scruggs, board vice-chair of Texas Gun Sense, a gun violence prevention group, said.
There were hopes for laws prohibiting the sales of guns without background checks and the closing of gun sales loopholes.
But none of that happened. Legislation offering those restrictions and others never made it past committee. Several laws addressing mental health did pass, however and Abbott pointed to those as well as the fact that the Legislature included money in its state budget to help schools be safer and better prepared for gun violence.
As the meeting with the governor was taking place, a pro-gun lobbying group held a rally outside, and its members told reporters they were opposed to any restrictions around weapons, including limits on high-capacity ammunition magazines.
"A new level of hate"
“We are trying to approach this very realistically, realizing Texas is a state where conservative Republicans still hold power,” Scruggs had said after participating in the roundtables that followed the Santa Fe shootings.
But he believes El Paso has changed the landscape because the shooting was racially motivated and one of the worst mass shootings in modern history.
“The gun violence occurring has taken on a new level of hate and just a heinousness to it,” Scruggs said. “People are on the edge anyway because of all the rhetoric going around.”
That includes rhetoric from state officials, something lawmakers have already privately discussed with state leaders. While some state Republican leaders have denounced white supremacy, they have not gone so far as to criticize the words of President Donald Trump or those of other elected officials within their ranks.
Police said the suspect in the El Paso shooting posted a screed that talked of a “Hispanic invasion," words similar to those spoken by Trump and some Texas officials.
Anchia said the rhetoric can’t be isolated from policies that have been implemented in Texas that have been detrimental to its Latino population, which is expected to be the largest ethnic group in the state by 2022.
He points to SB4, the law that gives law enforcement more power to investigate the citizenship status of an individual and allows the state to remove an elected official who restricts officers’ cooperation with federal immigration officials.
He also named the state’s redistricting plans, which were found to be intentionally discriminatory by three federal courts — though the Supreme Court vacated those rulings — as well as the state’s attempt to purge Spanish surname citizens from its voter rolls.
“It is the cumulative impact of all that that gives rise to the frenzied hate that the gunman was displaying during the mass murder in El Paso,” Anchía said.
Despite that backdrop, Gonzalez said she entered the roundtable discussions optimistic that this time there will be change. That optimism remained after the meeting.
“My job at the table is going to be to keep pushing forward,” she said. “We have to honor the people we lost in our community.”