El Paso lawmaker one year after massacre: ‘We can’t let the pandemic stand in the way’ of progress

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AUSTIN (Nexstar) — As a somber milestone approaches since the deadly attack at an El Paso Walmart that killed 23 people and left nearly two dozen others hurt, some in El Paso are healing and some are angry.

“Needless to say, it’s a sad time for us,” State Sen. José Rodríguez, D-El Paso.

A makeshift memorial outside an El Paso Walmart paid tribute to the 23 people killed and nearly two dozen injured by a gunman on Aug. 3, 2019. (Nexstar Photo/Wes Rapaport)

“There is still a lot of, I think, open wounds,” Rodríguez, the senior member of the El Paso delegation, said.

“As we’ve been saying ‘El Paso Strong,’ we are going to get over this, and people are more united and working together than ever before,” he said.

In the aftermath of the shooting, growing calls to address white supremacy and gun violence filled the conversation.

Hours after the attack, Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican, called the shooting “disgusting” and “intolerable.”

“We have to be very, very, clear that conduct like this, thoughts like this, actions like this, crimes like this are not who or what Texas is and will not be accepted here,” Abbott said on Aug. 3.

In the weeks that followed, he created a Texas Safety Commission and a Domestic Terrorism Task Force to discuss steps to address background checks on gun sales, prosecution of hate crimes, and identifying suspicious activity.

“There is sometimes a lag of the time period from when the person is convicted of the crime to when the information is reported, to the time that it would get to whoever is in charge of the background check,” Abbott told reporters after the first Texas Safety Commission meeting. Abbott later released a Texas Safety Action Report which detailed executive actions he took and highlighted recommendations for lawmakers.

“Solving the problems that have led to these horrific events will take more than governmental action,” he said in a statement along with the report. “The complete solution will require more than what is outlined in this paper. It will require parents, families, churches, law enforcement, community groups, schools, and others working together to fortify the social fabric of our society.”

State leaders formed legislative committees to meet across the state and hold hearings on specific issues ranging from red flag laws to the role of social media in mass violence.

“We talked about different kinds of measures that would hopefully make our streets and home safer from these particularly the mass shootings,” Rodríguez said.

“What we heard in the committee hearings were very passionate statements on both sides, on the side of people who feel that we ought to have common sense gun reform in the state, and then on the other side, people concerned about their second amendment rights, and fearing that their guns are going to be taken away,” Rodríguez explained.

“I think we’ve all made very clear those of us who are proponents of common sense gun safety legislation, that we’re not interested in taking people’s guns away, that we’re interested in just simply promoting a safer environment because of the extensive proliferation of guns that come to the hands of criminals,” he continued.

Days after Abbott’s new panels met for the first time, eight people died and 25 were hurt in a shooting spree in the West Texas cities of Midland and Odessa.

“The events of August 31, 2019 are never far from the thoughts of anybody in our community here in Odessa,” State Rep. Brooks Landgraf, R-Odessa, said this week.

“I continue to meet on a regular basis with family members of the victims of that terrible shooting and also with some of the survivors,” Landgraf said.

The state-formed committees have not met during the pandemic, causing delays in some of the discussions ahead of the next legislative session.

“When the legislature reconvenes in January of 2021, I believe that we will be able to take some of the lessons that we have learned in so many of the testimonials that we have heard from these hearings across the state of Texas and find a way to help address these concerns so that another community doesn’t have to go through it with Odessa and El Paso have gone through so recently,” Landgraf said.

Despite some pressure from Democrats to call a special session for lawmakers to formally consider new legislation to tackle some of these issues, Abbott did not call a special session, opting to wait until lawmakers reconvene in 2021.

“The governor had indicated that he was interested in in passing some legislation this coming session,” he stated. “Because we have not taken up the issue again, I’m concerned that this issue will be relegated to the background as the state faces the the enormous task of having to balance the budget due to the pandemic.”

Texas’ senior Senator on Capitol Hill, Republican John Cornyn, aimed to improve the background check system for gun sales nationwide after the deadly church shooting in Sutherland Springs in 2017. His legislation required additional data be uploaded into the federal background check system. It became law in 2018.

“I believe strongly and in the rights of law abiding citizens to keep and bear arms, “Cornyn said this week. “But I think most Texans certainly would agree with me that when it comes to getting guns out of the hands of convicted felons and people who are mentally unstable, that this is something we should do.

Central Texas Republican Congressman Michael McCaul, helped Cornyn push the Fix NICS Act through Congress. But in the wake of the shooting in El Paso, he said last year “the American people want us to do something more.”

McCaul introduced a bill Friday called the Protecting America Through Sharing Information Act. His legislation creates a way to flag social media postings to law enforcement, an aide said. It would give the Department of Homeland Security the power to designate an institution responsible for receiving online threats of imminent violence from social media companies and disseminate them to appropriate law enforcement, all in an effort to prevent violent attacks.

The shooting took place a few blocks from State Rep. César Blanco’s office. The El Paso Democrat said he hoped this anniversary reminded state leaders of the promises they made to Texans.

“I hope that we can also take this anniversary to refocus the conversation on the reforms that we need to see in order to prevent another mass shooting and another domestic terrorist attack,” Blanco said Friday. “Especially as we get closer to session, we can’t forget the victims, the promises that we as leaders have made to do what we can do to prevent another tragedy.”

Blanco is banking on bills he has already authored to see new life in the legislature next year.

“The legislature needs to consider solutions, like passing universal background checks, passing red flag law protection orders, banning assault weapons and high capacity magazines, and keeping guns out of the hands of convicted hate crime offenders, criminal offenders and domestic abusers,” Blanco said. “Some of these bills I actually have authored and introduced in the past that didn’t move.”

Blanco said taking action would help the community’s healing.

“I think all of us have made sure that that we’re doing everything that we can to connect these families to resources they need but to bring not only justice, but to demonstrate that their legislature is going to take action to keep them safe and make these wrongs, right,” he said.

Rodríguez, who is retiring after more than 40 years in the public arena including almost a decade in the state house, says there’s plenty more work to do to protect Texans.

“There’s no question that we can’t let the pandemic stand in the way of making some progress on this very important issue,” Rodríguez said Thursday.

El Paso Congresswoman Veronica Escobar, a Democrat, introduced legislation Friday to designate the El Paso Healing Garden as a national memorial.

“My community continues to confront hate with love and to honor the victims and survivors,” Escobar said on the House floor.

She said the attack “wasn’t only another tragic outcome of America’s gun violence epidemic but also a result of America’s hate epidemic, fueled by racism and xenophobia as well as rhetoric coming from the most powerful leaders in the land.”

“One year later, we still don’t have laws that make us safer from gun violence, and we still face a reckoning on hate,” Escobar said.

The gunman accused in the El Paso massacre, who police say confessed to the killings and who posted racist writings online targeting Hispanics according to prosecutors, pleaded not guilty on state and federal charges. His lawyers said he has diagnosed “lifelong neurological and mental disabilities” for prosecutors considering whether to seek the death penalty.

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