In surprise move days after Allen mall shooting, Texas House panel OKs bill raising age to buy semi-automatic rifles

By Alejandro Serrano, Eleanor Klibanoff and Sneha Dey, The Texas Tribune

In surprise move days after Allen mall shooting, Texas House panel OKs bill raising age to buy semi-automatic rifles” was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

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The chants echoed off the rotunda walls at the Texas Capitol even before the House convened Monday morning.

“Raise the age, raise the age,” dozens of people yelled at a rally urging lawmakers to advance a bill that would raise the minimum age to purchase certain semi-automatic rifles from 18 to 21. “Raise the age, raise the age.”

For months, advocates for restricting some firearms access — many of them relatives of people killed by gunmen — have shown up during the first legislative session since Texas’ deadliest school shooting to push for tighter weapons laws. On Monday, which signaled a key deadline for many House bills to advance, they showed up again.

The deadline — and the advocates’ attendance — also fell two days after the state’s latest mass shooting, in which a gunman killed eight people at an outdoor shopping mall in Allen.

For weeks, House Bill 2744 appeared poised to be left in committee and miss the deadline for a vote by the House Select Committee on Community Safety, chaired by Republican state Rep. Ryan Guillen of Rio Grande City.

“One year ago today, my daughter had her communion. About a month later, she was buried in that same dress,” Javier Cazares, whose 9-year-old daughter Jacklyn was killed in the Uvalde school shooting, said during a Monday press conference. “Mr. Guillen, and anybody else who is stopping this bill from passing, sad to say but more blood will be on your hands.”

In an unexpected move following the rally and press conference, a meeting for the committee was announced from the House floor Monday. During the meeting, the committee voted 8-5 to advance HB 2744 to the full chamber, with Republican state Reps. Sam Harless of Spring and Justin Holland of Rockwall joining Democrats in the vote.

Sobs and applause filled the tiny room in a basement extension of the Pink Dome.

HB 2744, filed by Democratic Rep. Tracy King of Batesville, would prohibit selling, renting, leasing or giving a semi-automatic rifle with a caliber greater than .22 that is capable of accepting a detachable magazine to a person younger than 21 years old. Parents and relatives of children killed in the Uvalde shooting, as well as King, have said the shooting may have been thwarted had the bill been law last year. A recent University of Texas at Austin survey found a sizable majority of Texas voters — including Republicans — support raising the minimum age to buy all guns from 18 to 21.

Because the man identified as the gunman in Allen was 33, raising the minimum age for semi-automatic rifle purchases likely wouldn’t have kept him from purchasing such a weapon. He used an AR-15-style rifle — the same type of weapon used by the gunman in Uvalde who killed 19 children and two teachers last year.

Less than two weeks ago, a gunman with a similar type of weapon in Cleveland, which is about 40 miles northeast of downtown Houston, killed five neighbors after one had asked him to stop shooting his gun late in the night because an infant was trying to sleep.

“There is no safe place in America any more. There’s no church that’s safe, there’s no school that’s safe, there’s no shopping mall that’s safe, there’s no library that’s safe,” Rep. Gene Wu, D-Houston, said at the press conference Monday. “It’s not because of books, it’s not because of trans kids who want health care, it’s because of things that people own — because we value things over people.”

The Uvalde gunman used an AR-15-style rifle, which he purchased within days of turning 18, after unsuccessfully trying to persuade relatives to illegally buy him a gun.

Kimberly Mata-Rubio, whose 10-year-old daughter Lexi was killed in that shooting, told reporters and lawmakers she spent Sunday night angry and trying to find the right words to address Guillen.

In her hotel room on Monday morning, she recounted, she did not wake with anger but with tears after seeing her daughter in a dream that ended with her holding the little girl tight, “inhaling the scent of her hair like it’s oxygen I’m deprived of.”

“The tears are what woke me up. I share this with you to say I’m so sorry I’m not strong today and maybe that’s what y’all need to see,” Mata-Rubio said, breaking down. “At the end of every day, I’m just a mom who wants my daughter back and a mom who doesn’t want another mom to know my pain.”

After the committee voted, Mata-Rubio wrote in a social media post, “Lexi, baby, you did it. You’re so powerful. You’ve reached so many hearts.”

Supporters of the bill clapped when lawmakers left the committee meeting Monday. Advocates for gun safety and restrictions on weapons access wept. Others hugged legislators, including King.

The bill still faces an uphill climb to becoming law in Texas. The state has regularly loosened gun restrictions over a period of roughly a dozen years, during which it has also experienced nine mass shootings.

House Speaker Dade Phelan said earlier this year that he does not believe HB 2744 has the votes to pass the chamber but that he won’t stand in the way of it being debated. A similar bill in the Senate has not yet received a hearing. And Gov. Greg Abbott has said the law would not be constitutional.

Regardless, Monday’s vote was seen by some as victory.

In 10 years of advocating for gun reform, Nicole Golden, executive director of Texas Gun Sense, called the vote an “unprecedented experience.”

“I’m still crying,” Golden said hours after the vote. “To see that pressure can work, that advocacy still has a voice here is a huge milestone for me. We have been saying from the beginning, even if the bill only goes so far as a vote in this committee, that means a lot.”

Following Monday’s vote, HB 2744 headed to the committee that sets the schedule for the full chamber.

Rep. Dustin Burrows, a Lubbock Republican was one of three members of a special investigative committee that last summer examined the Uvalde shooting. He voted against its advancement as a member of the select committee. Burrows also chairs the House Calendars Committee, which could determine when or if HB 2744 advances to the full chamber. But the calendars chair does not comment on bills coming to or being considered by the committee.

If the bill stalls under Burrows’ calendars committee, it will miss another deadline approaching this week: All House bills that aren’t given initial approval by the full chamber by Thursday immediately face increasingly difficult odds of becoming law. Though there are some avenues lawmakers could try to resuscitate the proposal.

“We have rules in our rulebook that can bring a bill to life at any time — and damn it, I intend to use them,” Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer, chair of the House Democratic Caucus, said at Monday’s press conference.

Disclosure: University of Texas at Austin 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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