Analysis: Why Texas Republicans are launching trial balloons on gun laws

Two University of Texas/Texas Tribune pollsters say top state officials edging into slightly tighter gun control laws are taking their cues from the changing electoral climate — not from changing attitudes among voters.

A mourner lights a candle at a vigil for Leilah Hernandez, one of the victims of the shootings in Odessa and Midland.

Easing gun laws and rejecting gun control have been the norms in Texas politics since before Republicans took control, as a recent roundup of gun legislation in The Texas Tribune amply illustrates.

Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick have regularly positioned themselves with an eye on each other and another on primary voters, donors and the state’s interest group universe, each trying to occupy the more conservative position. But in their responses to the recurring mass shootings in Texas, that has changed: The two have edged into conversations about “red flag” laws and increased background checks — positions that have been off limits for Second Amendment advocates housed mostly, if not exclusively, in the Republican Party.

While one might be tempted to attribute this repositioning to a rapid shift in public attitudes toward gun safety resulting from frequent, local mass shootings, public opinion data suggests that the more likely source of Abbott’s and Patrick’s change of heart might just be, as with so many other recent changes, an increasingly competitive electoral environment in which primary elections aren’t the only elections that matter.

In the last two years, we’ve seen Abbott and Patrick floating trial balloons that don’t fit the pattern of habitual post-shooting redirection to every policy area except increased gun regulations. For example, consider the to-and-fro between the state’s top two officials after the 2018 Santa Fe High School killings. Abbott included consideration of a so-called red flag law on the laundry list of possible measures in his 2018 “School and Firearm Safety Plan,” only to have Patrick declare that idea dead on arrival in the Texas Senate. Abbott appeared to accede to Patrick’s resistance, citing “coalescence around the notion of not supporting what's categorized as a 'red flag' law.”

Yet just more than a year later, after the El Paso and Odessa killings, Patrick floated this message in a conversation with The Dallas Morning News: “I’m a solid NRA guy, but not expanding the background check to eliminate the stranger-to-stranger sale makes no sense to me.” The National Rifle Association apparently didn’t quite see it that way, comparing Patrick’s suggestion to the ideas of Barack Obama and Michael Bloomberg.

Shortly after, the governor issued his “Texas Safety Action Report,” which called on the Legislature to “consider ways to make it easy, affordable, and beneficial for a private seller of firearms to voluntarily use background checks when selling firearms to strangers.” It wasn’t exactly a call to arms control, and it certainly didn’t include a call for a special session in which lawmakers might actually act. But it was widely interpreted in the context of the significant public attention paid to the two recent shootings and to the lieutenant governor’s comments.

If the views of the state’s top two officials changed in the wake of repeated shootings, it wasn’t because public opinion had changed significantly in the last two years.

Contrary to expectations, recent mass shootings in the state have done little to change attitudes toward the regulation of guns in any significant way distinct from the slow nationwide trend toward increasing support for stricter gun control laws. In the February 2019 University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll, 49% of Texans indicated a preference for stricter gun control laws. Nine months and two Texas mass shootings later, support had increased almost imperceptibly to 51%.

Changes in attitudes among partisans were also limited. While 83% and 81% of Democrats in February and October polling, respectively, wanted stricter gun control laws, the share of Republicans wanting stricter laws increased by 5 percentage points, from 19% to 24%, while the share wanting to loosen current gun laws decreased by 5 points, from 29% to 24% — notable, but by no means a significant shift.

The expectation that Texas’ Republican voters uniformly hold a fanatical resistance to any regulation of guns, or to any action that would change laws governing access, cries out for qualification, and in some places is clearly and unambiguously wrong. When asked in the October poll whether they support “requiring criminal and mental health background checks on all gun purchases in the United States, including gun shows and private sales,” 81% of Texans said yes, including 93% of Democrats and 75% of Republicans.

While there’s little evidence of the short-term impact of mass shootings on attitudes, Republican support for background checks has increased across three items in the UT/TT Poll over a period of six years, from 55% in June 2013 to 70% in 2016 to 75% in 2019. On red flag laws, 68% of Texans expressed support in October polling, including 53% of Republicans.

If majority support among Republicans is not a new development, why would GOP officials raise concerns now? A changed perception of the level of competition between the parties in Texas has them testing the boundaries of resistance to heightened enforcement of existing laws and regulations of gun possession.

Their consideration of a slight shift in gun policy is consistent with the widely recognized reorientation of the legislative agenda after the 2018 elections. In this year’s legislative session, the agenda shifted from matters that lacked both broad attention and support but appealed to the most conservative Republican primary voters, like private school vouchers, regulating bathroom access and so-called “constitutional carry” laws. New on the menu were issues with demonstrated general election appeal, such as increased funding for public schools and efforts to slow the growth of property tax bills.

For all the emotion surrounding both the desire to prevent gun deaths and the fervent belief of some Texans in the primacy of the Second Amendment in guaranteeing constitutional liberties, the more mundane matters of policy ownership and political self-preservation loom over the tentative changes in Republican leaders’ gun rhetoric.

After Republican statewide candidates won elections by between 15 and 20 percentage points in the 2014 elections, the Legislature delivered campus carry and open carry at the behest of its most fervent primary voters. Polling showed as early as 2015 that this GOP strategy was not without risks. Even then, there were clear limits to the breadth of GOP support for the expansion of gun rights: Pluralities of Republican voters supported campus carry, but most were skeptical of open carry. As we wrote at the time, “conservative dominance of low-turnout GOP primaries [made] quietly going along with open carry a safe bet for most Republicans,” because the one clear source of support for open carry was Tea Party Republicans, then at the apex of their influence in Republican primary elections.

Almost five years later, the political terrain has changed. The 2018 elections results — where the lieutenant governor defeated his Democratic opponent by less than 5 points and Republicans lost seats in both houses of the Legislature, as well as in the congressional delegation — makes the general election look more threatening to state leadership. After almost two decades of answering almost exclusively to their primary voters on gun policy, Republican incumbents now must consider being held accountable for their actions on the issue by a broader electorate — much of which has been skeptical of their inaction all along.

Disclosure: The University of Texas has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

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