At about the same time that Texas passed a concealed carry law, I moved back to Texas. It was 2015. The law allowed licensed firearms to be hidden and carried by people into any place, and it also included a provision allowing private property owners to opt-out if they posted a notice. I'm from Texas, and I grew up a suburb that was very Friday Night Lights. While I never shot a gun, being around firearms for hunting or sport was the norm. Kids came to school with shotguns in their gun rack (until that was made illegal). But this law felt like a step too far for me. The way gun rights were being handled was disturbing. I vowed that I would only shop at stores and eat at restaurants that opted out of it. I still won’t set foot in a Walmart, where you can not only conceal a firearm but buy one and the ammunition to go with it, as well as several grocery chains and restaurants. But thank god Costco, Target, and Trader Joe’s “strongly discourage” firearms.
It’s hard to feel safe, or sane, in a state where, nearly everywhere, people can carry guns that I can’t see on their person.. But it’s life in Texas, and over time what started as a persistent and gnawing fear dulled into a certain weariness. It’s not unlike the way the characters in the Walking Dead eventually learned to live with the constant threat of zombies in their midst. When the danger is everywhere, ultimately you have no choice but to learn to live with it.
But now and then I’ll feel a jolt of panic. Sitting in a restaurant or a public space, I’ll catch sight of a man with a telltale bulge. Or browsing through Facebook, I’ll see a photo of a dead animal that one of my cousins posted, along with the gun he used. Or sometimes, I’ll go on a date with someone who drops into the conversation that they’ve got several guns and enjoy shooting them. It pushes me into a state of hyperawareness that some Texans think guns are going to save them from whatever dangers are lurking.
As of this weekend, two of the deadliest shootings in modern American history have taken place in Texas: the killing of 20 people in an El Paso Walmart and the 2017 Sutherland Springs shooting of 26 in a church. The state was rocked in 2016 when a sniper killed five Dallas police officers and wounded nine others during a peaceful protest. It was the deadliest incident for law enforcement in America since 9/11. So what’s going to happen to Texas gun control laws? If they keep trending the way the current legislature is moving, they’re only going to become more lenient.
Texas’s open carry law went into effect on January 1, 2016, and campus carry, which allows concealed carry on university grounds, went into effect on August 1 of the same year. Gov. Greg Abbott trolled gun control advocates in October 2015 when he linked to an article in the Houston Chronicle on gun purchases: “I'm embarrassed: Texas #2 in nation for new gun purchases, behind California. Let's pick up the pace Texans.”
Some Texans love their guns and want to take them everywhere. But according to February 2019 poll by the University of Texas and the Texas Tribune, 49% of Texans think gun control laws should be more strict and 30% believe they should remain as they are. Only 17% want laws to be more lenient. Despite that, the state legislature broke with their constituents and handed the NRA a victory with the gun legislation passed in the latest session.
In 2019, the state of Texas lifted the restriction on bringing guns into places of worship, unless the leader of the congregation expressly forbids it, as a reaction to the Sutherland Springs shooting. They made it legal to open or concealed carry legally owned firearms for a week without a permit after a state or natural disaster is declared, as a reaction to Hurricane Harvey. They made it illegal for landlords to ban tenants from having a gun in their apartments. They removed the state cap on the number of armed school marshalls allowed on campuses. Certain foster homes may now store guns and ammunition in the same location. Schools may not restrict persons from storing or transporting a licensed gun in their locked car. A bill restricting guns at airports passed, only to be vetoed by Abbott.
They did not pass bills on red flag laws that would temporarily take guns away from people who are an extreme risk (something 72% of Texans support), ban bump stocks, or close the gun-show loophole. The one thing they did do? Pledge $1 million for a gun storage public safety campaign.
Then, Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick, who is in a position that some consider the most powerful in Texas, sent out a statement saying any red flag laws would be dead on arrival. The bills addressing them didn’t make it out of select committees. Abbott followed suit, saying he doesn't support red flag laws either.
Gyl Switzer, Executive Director of non-partisan non-profit Texas Gun Sense, tells Refinery29 the reason these laws aren’t being passed is complicated. She marks it down to a polarized and partisan political environment, gerrymandering that makes marginal views outsized, and miseducation. After the Santa Fe, TX high school shooting in 2018, Abbott invited them to participate in round table conversations about ending gun violence prevention. “He recommended studying red flag laws, and there were charges to certain committees in the Senate and the House that included studying red flag laws,” Switzer tells Refinery29. “It was obvious to me that there was confusion and misrepresentation at those committee hearings about what those laws do and do not do.”
I’m not alone in feeling that gun laws are out of whack, going by the poll numbers. If Texas Republicans want to know how O’Rourke can mounted a serious challenge to a sitting senator and invigorate a Democratic base in a state that has been deep red since the ‘90s, they should look at their voting records. Congressional delegates, on the state and federal level, are not enacting the will of 79% of Texans. In a strongly pro-Second Amendment state like Texas, it seems to be hard for officials to imagine they can go too far in decriminalizing guns — but it looks like they have.
Democratic presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke is about as fed up with the state of gun violence prevention in his home state as a person can be. After the shooting in El Paso, O’Rourke returned home to help his community. He has since directly connected racist language by the president to the shooter and told Donald Trump not to visit El Paso in a tweet.
This president, who helped create the hatred that made Saturday's tragedy possible, should not come to El Paso. We do not need more division. We need to heal. He has no place here.— Beto O'Rourke (@BetoORourke) August 5, 2019
“Every three hours, someone in Texas dies from gun violence,” O’Rourke tells Refinery29. “My decision to speak out on this issue everywhere I go is a direct reflection of seeing how many tragedies have impacted the lives of Texans all across this state. Right now, the state legislature is failing to protect our communities by failing to pursue gun safety and regulation. We need to dismantle a corrupt system in which the gun lobby can buy access, influence and outcomes. And I'll be calling out the NRA and any elected official who stands in the way of enacting common sense gun reform — because as we've seen all too recently and all too often, there are life and death consequences every day that we fail to act."
So, what do we do in the immediate term to address these crimes? In Texas, the idea of rolling back Second Amendment rights is not on the table. The state is large and diverse. People from different regions and backgrounds here have wildly divergent views on gun laws. But it is high time for a sincere conversation about gun violence and common-sense regulations, including limitations on where you can take your gun, and how accessible guns are. It’s time for required registration of them, creating a universal background check, closing loopholes for gun buyers, and nation-wide red flag laws are all steps in that direction. The question seems to be: what’s it going to take to get that information to our representatives?
The best thing you can do right now is educate yourself on gun violence prevention and talking to them about our concerns. Voting in every election is also important — which means spending time researching the position of candidates on the issue, from school board elections to governor. And by not standing for rhetoric that has no data or merit to back it up. It’s time for Texas to have a real conversation about gun violence, because, as Switzer says, “Texans are smart enough to realize that guns everywhere is not the solution. It hasn't worked for us and El Paso is just the latest example of that.”
As for this Texan, I’m getting tired of having to research the firearms policy of every location I visit. I’m tired of being always on the lookout for a gun everywhere I go. Instead, I think I’m going to start spending my time brushing up on talking points around ending gun violence, get my friends to visit our state and local representatives to talk about our concerns, and perhaps finally visit a Kroger in peace.
Courtney E. Smith is Refinery29’s weekend editor and resident Texan. The views expressed here are her own.
*Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated the name of the location of the 2017 church shooting.