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Why Texans Can’t Get the Gun Laws They Really Want

There’s a disconnect in Texas between public sentiment toward guns and the state’s increasingly lenient public policy toward gun ownership. As part of the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas at Austin, we’ve been polling Texas voters for more than a decade on this topic, and it turns out that Texans, like most Americans, favor stricter gun control laws. But for the past decade, up to and including laws passed in 2019, the first legislative session after mass shootings in El Paso and Odessa, the state Legislature has continuously and steadily loosened the state’s gun laws. And in the wake of another horrific mass shooting at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, it’s hard not to imagine more of the same.

Depending on what state you live in, this disconnect may sound familiar, or it may come as a surprise, given Texas’ inextricable link with gun culture. But polling results show that it’s a distinct minority of Texans who express consistent, absolutist positions on gun rights. When we ask Texas voters whether gun laws should be more or less strict, as we have done nine times since 2015, each time a plurality or majority have indicated they wanted stricter gun laws. In fact, no more than 22 percent of Texas voters have said that laws restricting guns should be less strict. We should expect to see large partisan differences, but there is less polarization here than you would expect; while a majority of Democrats in each survey asked for stricter gun control laws, a plurality, and more often a majority, of Republican voters expressed a preference for maintaining the status quo — whatever it may have been at the time.



These attitudes have been extremely consistent, so consistent that it’s unlikely that another mass shooting, even one as shocking and sad as what happened in a Uvalde this week, will fundamentally shift the underlying dynamics in how Texans feel about gun laws. In February 2019, 49 percent of Texas voters said they wanted stricter gun control laws, nearly identical to the 51 percent who said the same in October 2019, shortly after the state experienced two mass shootings within a month — first in El Paso with a death toll of 23 (and 25 injured), then in Odessa with a death toll of seven (and 25 injured).

Despite this consistent desire for stricter laws, or at least, to maintain the status quo, GOP leaders and the Republican dominated state Legislature have continued to advance legislation limiting requirements for firearm training while expanding access. A smattering of examples includes, but is not limited to: giving Texans the right to store firearms in their cars; allowing licensed gun owners the ability to openly carry a handgun in a holster in public; requiring the state’s public universities to allow those licensed to carry a concealed weapon to be able to do so on campus (including in dorms, classroom, and campus buildings); removing the cap on the number of school marshals who can carry a firearm in K-12 schools; clarifying the right of handgun owners to carry their weapon in a church or other place of worship; and, most recently, allowing anyone over the age of 21 who is not prohibited from owning a gun to be able to carry one in public without a permit or training.

At the same time, Texans have also continually expressed an openness to the kinds of gun and firearm restrictions that most Americans appear to embrace. As recently as June 2021, 71 percent of Texans, including 61 percent of Texas Republicans, expressed support for universal background checks on all gun purchases. Polling in October 2019 found 68 percent of Texas voters, including 53 percent of Texas Republicans, in support of red flag laws — one of a handful of policy responses considered (but eventually jettisoned) by Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick following mass shootings that had occurred around the time. Even Democratic gubernatorial candidate Beto O’Rourke’s apparent Achilles’ heel in the gun debate — his support during his failed presidential bid for a mandatory assault weapon buyback program — found 59 percent of Texans roughly on his side and in support of a far stricter nationwide ban on semi-automatic weapons.

O’Rourke’s pledge to launch a buyback program came in response to the carnage that had just taken place at a Walmart in his hometown of El Paso, a mass shooting that pushed state leadership to publicly, albeit briefly, acknowledge that there might be a policy response to these shootings that involves the regulation of guns — as opposed to the usual focus on mental health and the “hardening” of soft targets like schools and stores. But in the legislative session immediately following those shootings, and despite the plurality of Texans wanting stricter gun laws along with the majority of Republicans wanting the laws left alone, the Legislature went in the other direction, passing a highly controversial permitless carry bill that a majority of voters opposed in polls we conducted in April, June and October of that year.

So what leads to this disconnect in Texas? Primarily, an election system that prioritizes the policy positions of a relatively small slice of the state’s most conservative voters who dominate Republican primaries through gerrymandering and low-turnout elections. This pattern is exacerbated by the fact that Texas statewide officials are elected in non-presidential election years, like 2022.

Still, the 2019 legislative session saw a brief respite from some of the most conservative legislation in exchange for a focus on public education financing and property taxes. That’s because a number of Republicans in the 2018 elections had a close shave as a result of Donald Trump’s mobilization of Democrats, O’Rourke’s offering of a quality alternative to Republican Sen. Ted Cruz, and the weakening of the partisan leanings of legislative districts drawn at the beginning of the last decade. But 2021 was a redistricting year, and the process was dominated by Republicans, so the main result has been to reduce the number of competitive districts and place most Republican legislators in more heavily Republican districts and most Democrats in more Democratic districts. The effect is to make compromise less likely, and extremism more likely, as the only real challenge in these newly redrawn districts would come in the form of a primary challenge.

Republicans in the Legislature, knowing that their most important contest would take place in primaries by March and not in general elections November, focused much of last year’s legislative session towards satisfying the desires of activated constituencies within their coalition. That resulted in one of the most conservative legislative sessions in Texas history, where, in addition to passing a majority-opposed permit-less carry bill, the Legislature passed a majority opposed trigger bill that would ban all abortion if/when the Supreme Court invalidates Roe v. Wade, and pushed forward on book bans and limitations on how racism can be discussed in public schools — all issues that activate some Republican voters, but that also face significant opposition in the state.

This all points to warning signs for Republicans in general, but especially in Texas, a state whose electoral votes are routinely acknowledged to be essential should the GOP have any hope of capturing the presidency. The party’s policies are increasingly playing in negative public opinion territory among Texas voters. Part of this is the cost of success: Having been in charge of state government for the past two decades, Republicans have advanced a conservative agenda for much of that time, leaving little in the way of low hanging fruit when it comes to the policy areas that their most committed activists play in, including on abortion, voting, public education, religious freedom, and yes, guns and gun control.

A majority of Texas voters now indicate they believe the state is headed in the wrong direction for only the second time since the UT poll was launched in 2009, with the first coming in August of last year. This should unsettle Republican leaders. At some point, an approach to governing that prioritizes the will of a minority of voters, or even one that generates significant minority opposition within one’s own party in addition to opposition among independents and overwhelming opposition among Democrats, will reach the end of its effectiveness.

But before Democrats get their hopes up, this won’t happen immediately, and maybe not even soon. In the recently redrawn districts governing the contests for Congress and the Texas Legislature, there is likely no clear end in sight, with non-competitive statehouse races likely the norm for some time, those low-turnout primaries will continue to drive legislators to satisfy the needs of small slices of their voters who, if not effectively managed, could become the base of their next challenger. This state of affairs all but guarantees a Republican majority at the statehouse level for the foreseeable future.

This means that for Democrats in Texas, and likely in other red states, statewide races for positions like U.S. senator or governor are the only real targets when it comes to either advancing legislation more in line with public sentiment, or, more likely, simply stopping even more lenient gun legislation from passing. In O’Rourke, Abbott faces his toughest competition yet as governor. But even if O’Rourke can’t pull off what would be a remarkable victory under any circumstances in Texas, but especially given the headwinds facing all Democrats in 2022, the lesson from recent sessions in Texas is that statewide leaders may not react to statewide opinion, but they may eventually have to react to statewide results.

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