Just days after Texas was rocked by a second mass shooting in a month, Democratic candidates for the U.S. Senate talked gun policy at a forum in Frisco. It’s the first forum of the election season in the contest to pick the person who will challenge Republican Sen. John Cornyn next year.
The Democrats placed the blame for inaction on broadly supported policy changes, like universal background checks, on the National Rifle Association and their support for Republican-elected officials. As each vies to challenge Cornyn next year, most took jabs at his role in Senate leadership, saying he plays a key role in stymying debate and votes on gun reform.
Austin-based labor organizer Cristina Tzintzún Ramirez told the crowd she graduated from high school the same year as the Columbine High School shooting in 1999, and she’s been waiting for substantive gun reform since then.
"Instead of doing things like passing universal background checks, getting assault weapons out of the hands of civilians," Tzintzún Ramirez said. "our legislators have been teaching children how to play dead in their classrooms."
State Sen. Royce West from Dallas called on his long political experience, saying attitudes in Texas and nationwide are changing quickly on gun policy, and he says it will force Republicans to join Democrats and work on the issue.
"I was with Ann Richards on this issue. That’s how far back I go. I filed legislation in Texas to deal with universal background checks, assault weapons and all the issues that we’re talking about," West said. "I don’t feel in no ways tired. In no ways tired — I’ll keep working on this issue as your U.S. Senator."
Former Congressman Chris Bell argued that a split Congress would continue to block movement on any gun control agenda, and that Democrats will need to win both houses of Congress in order to force substantial change.
"They are bought and paid for, and until you elect more independent-minded people, it is not going to change," Bell said. "And that is why we so desperately need a ban and buyback program like they had in Austrialia."
Houston city councilwoman Amanda Edwards distanced herself from John Cornyn, saying he is a tool of the National Rifle Association and is failing to represent the majority of Texans who want laws changed to make mass shootings less common.
"It's time to put the interest of the people first rather than the NRA first," Edwards said. "And I will tell you I have made good grades and A's most of my life, but what I don’t want is an A+ from the NRA like John Cornyn."
Sema Hernandez said she wants assault weapon buyback and universal background checks, but says only wholesale political change can make substantial reform.
"Weapons of war do not belong on our streets and in our homes," Hernandez said. "And for someone to say that these AR-15s are for hunting — I mean who are you kidding? Are you a bad hunter?"
El Paso native Adrian Ocegueda dismissed discussion as talking points without making changes to the rules of the Senate that allow Senate leadership — including John Cornyn — to block votes on popular reforms.
"And if that happened today, we could force John Cornyn to take a vote, so that he doesn’t hashtag El Paso Strong, he has to do something to make El Paso strong," Ocegueda said.
MJ Hegar, who is also running for Senate in Texas, was not at the debate.