The floundering of House Bill 316 shows that Republicans are still unwilling to stand up to the NRA and far-right primary voters.
A 4-year-old boy in Texas City was at home with his grandmother last year when he found a handgun in a bedroom and fatally shot himself. The next day, a 6-year-old boy in Houston was at home with his teenage sister when he found a pistol in a bedroom and shot and killed himself. At least 19 children died in unintentional shootings in 2018 in Texas, and at least 30 more were injured, according to the Gun Violence Archive.
Now, some lawmakers in Texas — home to more guns than any other state — are trying to pass a proposal to create a state-run campaign promoting gun safety.
The proposal would direct the Department of Public Safety to create a firearm safety, suicide prevention and safe storage public awareness campaign, similar to “Click it or Ticket” and “Don’t Mess with Texas,” and is a top priority for gun safety advocates. The measure has some bipartisan support, but it is opposed by influential gun lobbying groups and some Republican lawmakers who see it as a slippery slope to an infringement on the Second Amendment. And the handful of conservatives who ostensibly support the bill have suggested that it be amended to address concerns from the National Rifle Association.
“We need this messaging now more than ever,” said state Representative Donna Howard, an Austin Democrat who authored House Bill 316.
Supporters of the measure say the campaign could help keep firearms out of the hands of school shooters, like the 17-year-old who killed 10 people at Santa Fe High School last year using his father’s guns. In fact, a similar safety campaign was proposed in Governor Greg Abbott’s School Safety Action Plan, which was developed by a committee of stakeholders in response to the Santa Fe shooting. Abbott has not publicly stated his position on the proposal and did not respond to a request for comment.
Although no research has been done about the efficacy of public information campaigns promoting gun safety, studies show that safe storage laws reduce the number of unintentional shootings and suicides. And Howard said reducing unintentional shootings is not a partisan issue. She secured endorsements for the bill from 16 groups, including Students for Concealed Carry and the Combined Law Enforcement Agencies of Texas, the state’s biggest police union. She also got Sugar Land Republican Rick Miller to sign on as a joint author. Miller told the Observer that he’s a strong supporter of the Second Amendment and that he doesn’t see a problem with promoting gun safety.
But the NRA and the Texas State Rifle Association have labeled HB 316 a waste of state money and a threat to the Second Amendment, effectively cancelling out the bill’s bipartisan support. Tara Mica, an NRA lobbyist who opposed the measure in committee last month, told lawmakers that the firearms industry should be in charge of educating gun owners about safety, not a government agency. (The NRA has used similar arguments to kill gun safety legislation in other states, overstating the efficacy of its “Eddie Eagle” child education program.) Mica also expressed concerns that the campaign would be “biased” and that it would discourage the use of guns.
State Senator Carol Alvarado, D-Houston, is carrying Senate Bill 1573, a companion to HB 316. The Senate version was scheduled for a hearing in the criminal justice committee on Monday, but Alvarado pulled the bill from the agenda after the NRA expressed opposition. She said she’s planning to work with the gun rights advocacy group in the coming weeks to address their concerns in the bill.
Meanwhile, Howard’s bill barely passed out of the House Homeland Security and Public Safety committee. Only one Republican, Nacogdoches State Representative Travis Clardy, supported it. “I think the bill deserves to move forward,” Clardy told the Observer. “But I think it could be made better with some amendments, which we could add in a debate on the House floor.”
Miller, the Republican who signed on to the legislation as a joint author, told the Observer that he also supports amending the bill to address the NRAs concerns. Nevertheless, he thinks HB 316 still has a chance. “If it gets to floor, I think the majority of my side will vote for it,” he said.
But the voices of lawmakers like Miller and Clardy are often drowned out by the far-right, which has mobilized against the bill. Tyler Republican Matt Schaefer, a member of the Freedom Caucus, attempted to defund the campaign with an amendment to the state budget last month. “I know where they are trying to go with this,” Schaefer told the Observer. “The anti-gun people want all guns to be locked up in safes.” While the defunding effort failed, Schaefer tweaked his amendment by adding language to specify that the campaign can’t convey that it’s illegal to keep weapons loaded and accessible.
Rice University political scientist Mark P. Jones said many Republicans will do a political calculation when deciding whether or not to support the measure, because voting for the bill could mean losing their seat in a primary, even if it helps them in the general election. “A primary opponent could use their vote on this to portray them as anti-gun, and that could lead to the NRA intervening against them,” said Jones. “But we have more Republican candidates now who need to worry as much about the general than the primary, which is different from four years ago.”