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Richards Sets a Politically Fateful Course on Guns

In this excerpt from Jan Reid's Let the People In: The Life and Times of Ann Richards, the author looks at events that sharpened Texans' desire for more liberal gun laws and put them at odds with their governor.

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The following is the third of three abridged excerpts from Jan Reid's new book, Let the People In: The Life and Times of Ann Richards. This is from a chapter entitled "Sass."

* * *

Ann's familiarity and friendship with Bill Clinton did not mean they would always agree. The Superconducting Super Collider was being gouged under onetime tallgrass prairie, now mostly sun-baked farmland, near Waxahachie, a short drive south of Dallas.

Lobbying the Clinton administration and Congress to keep those grandiose projects alive was a top priority of Jane Hickie, who now directed the Office of State-Federal Relations. And the governor enlisted additional help in Washington from a sort of lobbyist without portfolio, the lawyer Shelton Smith. As a University of Texas student, Shelton had gotten hooked on politics and government while working for Governor Preston Smith (no relation). He had made a great deal of money in a hurry as a plaintiff's lawyer in Houston, and he had a beautiful Hill Country retreat with several guest homes along the banks of the Blanco River, southwest of Austin. Ann and her staff at the Treasury had used Shelton's ranch for working retreats, and during her first gubernatorial campaign, Shelton had been a generous contributor.

"I've got a deal for you," she told him in late 1992. "I want you to move to Washington for a year and a half and make sure this Supercollider thing stays on track. And I can't pay you. You have to do this on your own nickel."

What a deal! But Shelton agreed to do it.

* * *

Like the race to catch up with Sputnik, and the invention of the missiles and satellites that eventually put American astronauts on the moon, the Super Collider intrigued the Reagan and Bush administrations in part because of its possible military applications and its potential to create unearthly amounts of energy. And they did not want the Soviets to do it first. But in 1992 there was no Soviet Union. And in addition to the sudden end of the Cold War, by 1993 the projected cost of completing the Super Collider had ballooned to $8.25 billion. Congress was having a severe case of buyer's remorse with the Super Collider, and the Clinton administration's passion for it was tepid, at best.

As the grand experiment's fate became more apparent, Shelton Smith's mission in Washington evolved into reclaiming the initial $150 million that Texas had invested. (According to the Houston Chronicle, Texas's bond expenditures on the project totaled $400 million.) President Clinton and his Energy Department bureaucrats weren't too hot on refunding the money. The disagreement escalated to the point where Shelton found himself seated in the White House with Ann and the president. As the bargaining grew more intense, Shelton got increasingly nervous.

"She said to President Clinton, 'I want you to understand something, pal. You owe me a lot of money, and if you don't pay it back, I'm gonna sue you.' Then she turned and pointed at me and said, 'And this is the guy who's gonna do it.'"

Shelton continued to describe the moment: "Clinton's a big guy. He had turned beet red. He sat there glaring at me, both hands on his thighs, and said, 'How much are you gonna sue me for?'"

"I said, 'I don't know for certain, Mr. President, but it's probably gonna be four or five billion.'

"'Do you think you can win it?'

"'Yes, sir, I do.'

"He turned and stared at Ann a while longer, then he got a huge grin on his face, and he said, 'Well, Governor, I guess we'd better get you your money.'"

* * *

In September 1991, a man named George Hennard rammed his pickup into a Luby's Cafeteria in the Central Texas Army town of Killeen, and then used two handguns to murder twenty-seven trapped people and wound twenty more before killing himself. At the time, it was the worst mass murder in American history.

A chiropractor named Suzanna Gratia Hupp watched her father and mother executed by Hennard — her dad had tried to tackle the man. Hupp was haunted by her belief that if she hadn't left her .38 revolver in the car, she could have shot the maniac and saved them. She later ran for the legislature on that single issue and won, becoming a heroine for a growing number of Texans. Ann was troubled by the slaughter in Killeen and by a grieving daughter's proposal that every man and woman should be free to go armed and take the law into their own hands.

But the tragedy in Killeen sent Ann down a road to a stand of principle she would not back away from, and it put her in direct opposition to the forces personified by Representative Hupp.

* * *

On February 28, 1993, Ann was traveling in Brenham when she received a call from staffers informing her that a surreal and savage drama had erupted inside a compound called Mount Carmel, where a religious cult called the Branch Davidians had been drawing increasing scrutiny and suspicion by law enforcement for some time. The Davidians were a rebellious offshoot of the Seventh-day Adventists. In 1988, the cult's leader, a sometime rock guitarist who changed his name to "David Koresh," was involved in a gunfight with a cult rival named George Roden. Koresh was acquitted at trial, while Roden went to prison. In late 1991, activities inside the compound had begun to alarm caseworkers at the state's Child Protective Services agency, and reports of automatic weapons and explosives being stockpiled at the compound got the attention of local law enforcement officials and agents of the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF).

John Fainter, the governor's chief of staff, compiled a riveting diary of the unfolding tragedy at Mount Carmel. In early December 1992, ATF agents approached the Richards administration with requests to borrow state aerial-reconnaissance equipment. The governor is titular commander of the Texas Air National Guard; the ATF could also have gotten what it wanted through military channels, which it did. In January and February 1993, aerial photos and infrared videos allegedly conveyed a "hot spot" image that the agents interpreted as an illegal weapons cache.

Ann and her chief legal counsel, David Talbot, contended that the National Guard could participate in arrest missions only if illegal drugs were involved. The ATF responded with accusations, never proved, that the Branch Davidians were manufacturing methamphetamines inside their compound. The morning of February 28, though the agents knew that the cult members had been tipped off and that the element of surprise was lost, heavily armed ATF officers tried to serve warrants at the compound for firearms violations, with support from eight National Guard helicopters and crews. In a vicious gunfight, four ATF agents and at least six residents of the compound were killed. One of the slain was the two-year-old daughter of David Koresh.

The next morning at the Capitol, Ann had planned to wax nostalgic about her high school and college years in concert with "Waco Day," but the bloodshed and standoff changed the subject. Ann told a crowd of reporters, "The sad part about a situation like this is that you're trying to make sense out of a senseless event. I'm worried about those children in the compound. I want them to get those kids out. If the adults make a choice that they want to be there, then they have to live with the consequences. But kids don't have a choice."

Answering a reporter's question, Ann said that she would take "a serious look" at legislation to ban assault weapons in Texas.

The FBI blasted the besieged cultists at night with deafening recordings of chanting Tibetan monks, the whine of a dentist's drill, shrieks of rabbits being slaughtered. An FBI tank destroyed Koresh's prized Camaro. Then at five thirty on the morning of the fifty-first day of the standoff, the National Guard informed Ann's office that the FBI was going in, using tear gas. The outcome stamped on the nation's consciousness a uniquely Texas image of explosions and inferno. Ann was snookered and used by federal agents who wanted to go in like a platoon of military commandos. The ATF got their wish, they got the hell shot out of them, and it led to that horrifying image of the compound ablaze with women and children inside. And to an extent, the tragedy had Ann Richards's name on it.

Clinton's attorney general, Janet Reno, had recently come down to tour with Ann and some staff members, who included my wife, the drug-treatment prison in Kyle, south of Austin. Among the paranoid and conspiracy-minded element of Americans who perceived black helicopters roaming the country at night — a group that included the Oklahoma City bomber, Timothy McVeigh — word spread that the purpose of Reno's tour of Kyle was a masquerade so that she and Ann could plot the attack on the Branch Davidians.

* * *

That fateful April, as the ashes and bones of Mount Carmel were still being collected and sifted by forensic experts, the legislature signaled that it would send a bill to allow private citizens to carry concealed handguns. Its Senate champion was a Houston-area Republican legislator, Jerry Patterson, who would later win multiple terms as land commissioner. Ann promised she would veto it, proclaiming: "The people of this state do not need to be reminded that weapons of violence produce death to innocent children and adults. I am an avid hunter and believe strongly in the rights of individuals to own guns. That is not the question here. This legislation will only increase the level of violence on our streets. I have not talked to one law enforcement officer who supports this bill, and I cannot in good conscience ask them to patrol the streets of this state and face additional hazards that this bill will encourage. Frankly, the only outcome of the passage of this bill will be more people killed by gunfire."

In response to her standoff with the legislature, she heightened her rhetoric: "The move by sponsors to report out a stripped-down version of the concealed gun bill is nothing more than game-playing by a few legislators who appear intent on embarrassing this great state as a place where gun-toting vigilantes roam the streets."

The legislature passed the bill, and she vetoed it as promised. In a speech she turned to police chiefs, county sheriffs, and constables who supported her veto; her voice rang with withering contempt for her adversaries: "I especially want to thank you for choosing to stand by me on this day when we say no to the amateur gunslingers who think they will be braver and smarter with gun in hand."

With her reelection in mind, she had started appearing at town-hall-like meetings around the state. People in the audiences kept raising the question. On remarks by the bill's sponsors that women wanted to be able to carry guns in their purses, she quipped that she didn't know a woman who could find a gun in her purse in an emergency. She must have gotten tired of hearing about pistol-packing Texans, and one night on the trail she lost her patience — some would say her discipline — in characteristic fashion. She wouldn't mind so much, she said, if these trained shooters were required to hook their pistols to chains around their necks. That way, others could say, "Look out, that one's got a gun!" She wasn't just parting company with the people who disagreed with her. She ridiculed them.

This excerpt from "Let the People In: The Life and Times of Ann Richards" by Jan Reid, copyright 2012, was reprinted with permission from the University of Texas Press.

This is the third of three excerpts being reprinted in The Texas Tribune. The  first excerpt looked at Richards' spats with Lt. Gov. Bob Bullock. The second looks at her political strength after a year in office.

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