Gov. Greg Abbott on Thursday convened the first meeting of the newly formed Texas Safety Commission, ramping up the state's efforts to devise policy solutions in the wake of the deadly shooting targeting immigrants and Hispanics earlier this month in El Paso.
For over four hours, the commission — which includes state leaders, lawmakers and law enforcement officials — met behind closed doors at the Capitol in what Abbott described as the "next step to make sure that we respond robustly and rapidly to the" El Paso attack.
Speaking with reporters at the end of the meeting, Abbott rattled off a long list of items that were discussed — stronger threat assessment efforts, better collaboration between social media companies and law enforcement, strengthening the state's domestic terrorism law. He also broached more politically sensitive issues related to guns, saying there was discussion surrounding red flag laws — or at least an alternative to them — background checks and assault weapons.
"I think the conversation went in a lot of different directions," state Rep. Joe Moody, D-El Paso, told reporters after the meeting. "Guns were discussed extensively — what we have under current law, what we can do under potential news laws. I think everything was on the table."
"It was a very open and candid conversation and I'm certainly encouraged by the fact we're trying to build consensus" around the issues, added Moody, the House speaker pro tem.
Twenty-two people were killed and more than two dozen wounded in the El Paso shooting, which took place Aug. 3 at a Walmart. Authorities believe the gunman, who was arrested and charged with capital murder, published an anti-immigrant manifesto shortly before the massacre, railing against a "Hispanic invasion of Texas."
Thursday was the first of two meetings that are planned for the safety commission, with the second one scheduled for next Thursday in El Paso. The meetings are similar to a series of roundtables that Abbott held in the wake of the 2018 Santa Fe High School shooting, and he presented a stack of papers to reporters Thursday to illustrate how many proposals came out of those roundtables that he signed into law.
Like he did after the Santa Fe roundtables, Abbott plans to issue a report with recommendations following the post-El Paso meetings. The governor, who has resisted pleas by some House Democrats to call a special session after El Paso, said the commission will focus on "ideas and suggestions that can lead to laws" but emphasized the state can take more immediate action without legislation.
"The levers that are available to the executive branch agencies and to the governor's office are almost unlimited in our ability to take action swiftly," Abbott said.
Abbott has also assembled a Domestic Terrorism Task Force in the wake of the El Paso attack, and its first meeting is slated for Aug. 30.
The El Paso delegation to the Legislature — all Democrats — left the first safety commission meeting pleased with what they described as a discussion where nothing was ruled out and everyone was intent on consensus. Asked where the biggest area of agreement was, Rep. César Blanco said it was that "this was a white nationalist crime inflicted on our community" and there need to be new laws targeting domestic terrorism.
Rep. Lina Ortega said one of the reasons she felt "extremely hopeful" after the meeting was that Republican leaders appeared newly open to gun-related proposals, particularly when it comes to background checks. Abbott said the commission talked about closing gaps in current background check laws as well as extending them to certain transactions that do not currently require a background check.
"Obviously right now it's just talking about ideas, and I think that as a result of the open conversation that it could lead to new laws that will help on performing more background checks," Ortega said. "Because of what happened, I think that the lieutenant governor, the governor, state leadership, is seriously looking at the problems that currently exist and making changes in the laws."
Participants agreed that assault weapons posed a thornier issue. Abbott said they were discussed but that it is “fair to say there was no coalescence” on a solution. Still, he called assault weapons an issue that will remain under discussion.
On red flag laws, which let judges temporarily seize someone's guns if they are deemed an imminent threat, Abbott suggested the conversation focused more on whether such concerns — like those that the El Paso gunman's mother raised — could lead to a welfare check. The governor also said the commission talked about strengthening existing law in Texas surrounding emergency protection orders.
Red flag laws proved politically perilous for Abbott after the Santa Fe shooting, when he asked lawmakers to study them but backed away once it became clear there was significant opposition on the right.
Before the safety commission meeting, Gun Owners of America, a hardline gun rights group, held a news conference outside the Capitol warning the commission against pursuing any proposals that would infringe on the Second Amendment. One of the speakers was Stephen Willeford, the hero in the 2017 Sutherland Springs church shooting.
"Gun owners are done," Willeford said, clutching the AR-15 semi-automatic rifle he used to take down the church gunman. "We don't want any more restriction. It does not stop the bad guys."
On the other end of the political spectrum, Democrats have been pressuring Abbott to do more than he has suggested so far to combat the forces that led to the El Paso massacre.
"Texans deserve a lot more than just talk," Manny Garcia, executive director of the Texas Democratic Party, said in a statement on the safety commission's first meeting. "Texans expect actions and solutions to curb racism, white supremacy, and gun violence in our state and in our country. The eyes of the world are on us."
The party pointed to an Abbott fundraising letter, which surfaced Thursday morning, that was dated the day before the El Paso shooting and used alarmist language to emphasize the need to "DEFEND" the Texas border. Asked if that kind of incendiary rhetoric came up in the meeting, the El Paso lawmakers said there was discussion — including a “very poignant moment,” according to Rep. Joe Moody — about the language everyone uses going forward.
“We didn’t talk about what’s happened in the past,” Blanco said. "We’re really focusing on what we’re going to do moving forward, and I think in that room, there’s a clear understanding that we need to take action together and anything that happened in the past in terms of politics or this legislative body — today we’re moving forward."
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