Texas has been home to several high-profile mass shootings over the past decade. And after each deadly event, like clockwork, there's a debate about the types of legislation that can be passed to prevent the next tragedy. But for some reason, the issue has hardly been spoken about during the 2020 election cycle.
During the third and final presidential debate, the topic wasn't broached once. That's odd considering just 13 months ago, former El Paso congressman Beto O'Rourke declared, “Hell yes we’re going to take your AR-15s, your AK-47. We’re not going to allow it to be used against our fellow Americans anymore,” during a Democratic debate featuring candidates who were hoping to represent the party in the race for the presidency.
The lack of discussion about guns and Second Amendment rights is also unusual because gun deaths have been on the rise over the past two decades. According to the latest figures from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the number of annual gun deaths in Texas has jumped from 2,117 in 1999 to 3,522 in 2018.
It's because of that increase in annual gun deaths that Ed Scruggs, board president of the nonpartisan group Texas Gun Sense, said his group advocates for evidence-based policies that they believe will reduce gun injuries and deaths.
"We need to emphasize safety with firearms in the home," he says. "Safe storage, training, keeping those guns secure from children in the home, [and] other people in the home that may be under mental distress."
In Texas, an average of 3,139 people are killed each year with a gun. Yet, according to a recent poll conducted by the University of Texas and Texas Tribune, Texas residents are divided about gun control — with about 50% saying they want stricter gun laws.
Still, over the past decade, the state's Legislature has expanded where people can carry guns, who can have a firearm on school campuses, and the right to openly carry firearms in public.
"Our laws are not as wide open as states like Idaho, Kansas or Montana," said Scruggs. "But we're pretty wide open when it comes to gun laws. We don't have many restrictions."
Scruggs points out that in recent years, the Texas Legislature has also reduced the fee to get a license, they've allowed folks to carry guns on campuses, they've made it possible for one to carry guns at demonstrations and that Texas laws allow gun owners to open carry assault-style rifles.
"Many states don't do that," he said.
So if half of Texans want stricter gun laws and gun deaths in the state are rising annually, it begs the question — why aren't guns a bigger issue?
“It is just not the most important thing. Other things are more important. You know, healthcare, taxes, social security, medicare, the future. I mean, there are so many other things at stake," said voter Will Hancock.
Hancock is a liberal voter from Kingwood. And he loves guns. He even runs a YouTube page for liberal gun enthusiasts. And although he talks about guns all day, he says the issue will not be top of mind when he votes.
Scruggs said lots of voters are in the same boat. "COVID-19 has changed so many things because there are so many immediate emergency issues that come into play.”
The pandemic, Scruggs said, has made it a struggle to get politicians talking about guns, gun rights, or gun violence prevention.
But politicians haven't been completely quiet about firearms during the election cycle. Scruggs said, prior to the pandemic, that guns were a major issue in the U.S. Senate race in Texas.
“MJ Hegar came out strong in support of gun violence prevention policies from the beginning," Scruggs said. "It was an issue in her primary and in her runoff and some people believed an issue and an advantage that she had, and one reason she won the nomination.”
Hegar supports a ban on the sale of assault-style rifles. She’s in favor of red flag laws. And Hegar wants to close loopholes in background checks.
In an interview with KERA, Hegar said her opponent, Republican Senator John Cornyn, has an extreme view on guns and doesn’t want to do enough to stop preventable deaths. And she points to the mass shootings in Midland and Odessa as an example.
"Universal background checks would’ve saved lives in Midland that day and they know it would save lives," she said. "So I don’t accept that John Cornyn thinks he’s done enough. He knows he hasn’t. But he is trying to serve his corporate PAC donors over his constituents.”
KERA reached out to Senator Cornyn and his campaign to discuss his stance on gun violence and Second Amendment rights, but he declined an interview.
When we shared Hegar’s sentiment with his representatives, they pointed out a law called the Fix NICS Act. It provides new financial incentives to states and agencies to report violent criminals to the FBI’s background check system. And Cornyn successfully pushed it through the senate in 2018.
The Senator spoke about Fix NICS in his debate with Hegar in early October. He touted how the law helped get an additional six million people reviewed by the FBI's background check system in just six months. But the 30-second comment was the only mention of guns throughout the hour-long debate.
Cornyn, his office said, considers the Fix NICS Act to be “the accomplishment he’s most proud of.” And they said the Senator calls Fix NICS “the only major reform of the background check system in decades.”
“Fix NICS was important, everyone knows that it was. But the facts are it’s something that should’ve been fixed long before that,” said Ed Scruggs.
He says that over the past 18 years, Senator Cornyn has toed the line when it comes to gun legislation: Cornyn has not come out in favor of universal background checks. He’s voted against banning high-capacity magazines of over 10 bullets. And he’s voted to expand the places where guns are allowed. All of that has earned him an A-plus rating from the NRA.
“His actions on gun violence prevention are very limited. It might be slightly more than others in his party, but he has a long way to go," said Scruggs.
Firearms have barely come up in Cornyn or Hegar’s 2020 campaigns, but they're not alone. Across the board, COVID-19, the economy and racial tensions surrounding policing have been the dominant themes for politicians.
Since the summer, health experts have spoken out about their concerns pertaining to gun violence during the COVID-19 pandemic. Some have brought up domestic violence, others have worried about financial insecurity and how it could push one towards acting out violently. But recently, Doctor Eric Fleegler, a pediatric emergency physician at Boston Children's Hospital, and two of his colleague wrote a paper for the Annals of Internal Medicine warning readers that a suicide epidemic could be on its way.
"I think that we are highly likely to see more firearm suicides at a level that we've never ever experienced in the history of our country," says Dr. Fleegler.
Fleegler's concerns have to do with the alarming number of gun sales that have occurred in recent months, especially purchases from first-time buyers.
"We don't have specific data about how many guns have been bought, because the federal government does not collect that data," Fleegler explains. "But we do know that background checks, which are a good proxy for purchases, have gone through the roof."
He says that it is clear that a state's gun ownership rate is directly tied to a state's mortality rate — that includes homicides, suicides and unintentional deaths. "And so, as guns are purchased at higher and higher rates, the concern is that we're going to see a trend towards more fatalities."
Fleeger's also concerned about first-time buyers. And that makes sense, because a recent study by The New England Journal of Medicine did show that men who bought a gun for the first time were eight times as likely to kill themselves by gunshot in the subsequent 12 years than non-owners; women were 35 times as likely to do so.
“Increased anxiety, increased depression and firearms truly have the potential to increase gun violence, specifically around suicide,” Fleeger said.
That's why he believes politicians who are currently pushing gun issues aside because it doesn't affect the polls is an error of judgment.
"We know that firearms are responsible for 20% of the fatalities of youth in America, and that they're responsible for almost 40,000 deaths in our country," said Fleeger. "These are deaths that are avoidable and not necessary."
He believes politicians — everyone one else — turning their attention away from gun policy issues is simply making a mistake. One that is surely going to lead to more losses, and not just not the political ones.
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