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For the first time since the Texas Legislature began looking into the Uvalde school massacre, debate veered Thursday into the subject of access to firearms and what limits, if any, should be pursued to best protect young students and the general public.
A Capitol hearing got off to a somber start when Jazmin Cazares, whose 9-year-old sister Jackie was killed at Robb Elementary in Uvalde, pleaded for lawmakers to honor her sister's memory by passing gun-safety legislation.
"I'm here begging for you guys to do something, or to change something, because the people who were supposed to keep her safe failed," Cazares said, adding later: "I'm terrified for my life to go back. I have senior year and that's it. Am I going to survive it?"
Cazares, who said she started her day sitting on her sister's bed and crying, urged lawmakers to improve the system of background checks before gun purchases and create a "red flag" system that allow guns to be temporarily removed from those found to be dangerous to themselves and others.
She also urged improved active-shooter training standards for officers and assurances that basic safety features, beginning with door locks that work, are used.
Immediately after, the joint hearing before two House committees heard from Suzanna Hupp, a former Republican member of the Texas House who was with her parents when they and 21 others were shot to death in the 1991 attack on a Luby's restaurant in Killeen.
Police response: 74 minutes, 8 seconds: Inside the Uvalde shooting
Hupp said imposing limits on gun rights would worsen, not improve, safety.
"Let's be clear that the gun: It's just a tool. It's a tool that can be used to kill a family, but it's a tool that can be used to protect a family," Hupp said. "I'm no gun lover. I couldn't care less about that hunk of metal right there, except that I want that chance, that item that changes the odds in what is now a more and more frequent scenario."
Hupp opposed universal background checks before every gun purchase, calling it "de facto gun registration. Registration always leads to confiscation, in my opinion."
She also opposed limits to high-capacity magazines — saying it would provide only a few seconds of difference because smaller magazines can be quickly replaced — and raising the age for all firearm purchases to 21.
Thursday's joint hearing heard only from invited witnesses and combined two House committees charged with responding to the Uvalde shooting — the Homeland Security and Public Safety Committee and the Select Committee on Youth Health and Safety — and was separate from a special investigative committee that has been questioning witnesses in private.
Democrats call for special session
Before the hearing began, 58 House Democrats sent a letter urging Gov. Greg Abbott to call an immediate special session to address four issues before students return in August:
• Enact a law allowing extreme risk protective orders, also known as a red flag law, and close loopholes in the state's protective order laws.
• Require background checks before all firearm purchases, including stranger-to-stranger sales.
• Require stolen guns be reported to law enforcement.
• Raise the legal age to purchase semi-automatic "assault weapons" from 18 to 21.
"Texans want common-sense gun safety legislation, and they want it now," state Rep. Chris Turner, D-Grand Prairie, said during a Thursday morning news conference. "This event in Uvalde ... has shaken people so much, that little kids could be murdered by an 18-year-old who was able to legally purchase an assault weapon, I think you're seeing shifting attitudes."
In addition, earlier this week 13 mayors from the state's most populous cities — including Steve Adler of Austin — called for a special session to enact legislation that they said would have prevented mass shootings at Uvalde and an El Paso Walmart in 2019. Those suggestions included universal background checks, no gun purchases by those under age 21, red flag laws, better training and resources for school police, and more money for mental health support.
Abbott and other Republican leaders have pushed back on calls for a special session, saying a thorough understanding of what happened in Uvalde was needed before a legislative response can be designed and debated.
Renae Eze, Abbott's spokeswoman, said Democrats should work with other lawmakers "rather than holding press conferences to promote themselves."
“The investigations being conducted by the Texas Rangers and the FBI are ongoing, and we look forward to the full results being shared with the victims' families and the public, who deserve the full truth of what happened that tragic day," Eze said, adding that House and Senate committees are responding to Abbott's request to study and make recommendations on school safety, mental health, firearm safety, police training and social media.
Only the governor can call a special session and determine what issues lawmakers can act upon during the 30-day sessions.
Police chiefs, sheriffs testify
During Thursday's hearing, legislators also heard from a half-dozen police chiefs from across Texas who explained active-shooter protocols and suggested a series of reforms, including a requirement that law officers get 16 hours of advanced training every two years in responding to active shooters.
Command staff also should get active attack management training, San Marcos Police Chief Stan Standridge told the committee.
He also asked for more state money to provide officers with medical equipment and embed mental health clinicians with officers in the field.
Leaders of the Sheriffs' Association of Texas and the Texas Police Chiefs Association also urged lawmakers to avoid enacting a law to determine which agency would provide the incident commander in a mass shooting or other multiple-agency response, particularly in reaction to the delay in confronting the Uvalde gunman.
Such a law would never be able to determine which agency or officer has the best ability or experience to lead in those chaotic situations, Chambers County Sheriff Brian Hawthorne said.
According to the Texas Department of Public Safety, Uvalde school district Police Chief Pete Arredondo was the incident commander at the Uvalde shooting who was responsible for the delay, and several lawmakers have suggested that the DPS should have taken over command of the situation.
This article originally appeared on Austin American-Statesman: Gun access debated as victim's sister begs Texas lawmakers for action