AUSTIN (Nexstar) — The family of the youngest victim in the deadly Odessa shooting spree in August 2019 helped a bill inspired by the rampage clear a major hurdle.
The legislation, House Bill 103, would create an active shooter alert system in the state, which law enforcement officials could use to notify the public of an actively violent situation.
Joanna Leyva, who has hesitated to share her family’s story until this week, testified before the Texas House Homeland Security and Public Safety Committee about the shooting during which her daughter was killed.
Leyva’s daughter, 15-year-old Leilah Hernandez, an Odessa High School student, was among the people who lost their lives that day.
“You always grow up thinking your kids will bury you,” Leyva said. “No mother or father wants to bury their child.”
“We don’t sleep at night,” Leyva testified. “There’s good days or bad days.”
Leyva told lawmakers she believed her family would have avoided the area of the gunman had an alert been sent out by law enforcement notifying the community of an active shooter.
State Rep. Brooks Landgraf, R-Odessa, filed the legislation. He’s working alongside the Texas Department of Public Safety to create the alert system along similar framework used for missing children, seniors and people who commit violent crimes against law enforcement.
“We think that this is a way to provide critical information about acts of mass violence at a time when the public needs it the most,” Landgraf said Friday. “By arming the public with that information, we’ll be in a good position to be able to protect themselves and their families.”
“We want to make sure that when you get an active shooter alert on your phone, that it means something,” Landgraf said.
The key to ensuring safety during a threat is speed.
According to an official with Texas DPS who testified to the panel on Thursday, an AMBER Alert can take 30 minutes to an hour to vet and disseminate — time Texans don’t have during an active shooter situation.
“In order for the alert to be effective, we understand that it must be timely,” Amy Hauck, DPS assistant chief of its intelligence and counterterrorism division, said.
Some lawmakers questioned Landgraf about the bill’s initial price tag, which totaled nearly $8 million, but he assured his colleagues the next draft of the bill would bring the cost down, because he was following a suggestion not to tie a 50-mile distance radius to the alert. Insisting on a uniform distance marker would require paying for additional infrastructure, training and staffing, so Landgraf is planning to tap into existing programs as the basis for his alert system.
“By taking that 50-mile radius or any specific geographic radius out of the equation, it allows us to piggyback on the existing systems, which means that you don’t need a new programming, you don’t need a completely new training set for this to work,” Landgraf explained. “So by making that change, which I think makes it a bit better bill, it also makes it a less expensive bill, too.”
In a legislative session where extra state money is scarce, cutting the cost could be key to getting the bill passed.
Leyva’s 18-minute address to the legislative panel will help — it left lawmakers in tears.
“As a mother, our hearts go out to you and your family,” the committee’s vice chair, State Rep. Rhetta Bowers, D-Garland, said through tears.
Typically, a bill laid out for the first time in committee is left pending until another hearing when members vote to send it to the full House. The committee members were so moved, they wanted to show Leyva and her family that action would be taken on the bill, so they fast-tracked it, voting unanimously to immediately report it favorably to the House. It’s one of the first bills this session to be reported out of committee.
“Leilah Hernandez lives on through this effort,” Landgraf said. “Her life was lost at the hands of a mass shooter that day, but her memory is working now to help save the lives of others in the future.”
Landgraf expects floor debate to take place by the end of this month.
Photojournalist Richie Bowes contributed to this report.