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The political stumbling blocks that prevent gun legislation from passing

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

As we're learning more about the victims in Uvalde, we're also getting new information about how law enforcement responded to the shooting. Family members of some of the victims have criticized police for taking too long to confront the gunman once he was barricaded inside the school classroom. Lucinda Velazquez (ph) is the great-aunt of one of the children who was injured but not killed.

LUCINDA VELAZQUEZ: I live here 45 years, and they haven't done nothing. Look at all this innocence - little babies. Did they have to die 'cause they didn't want to go inside?

CHANG: Police held a press conference today where Victor Escalon of the Texas Department of Public Safety pointed out local officers took fire from the gunman and were waiting for backup, which arrive an hour later.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

VICTOR ESCALON: Could anybody have got there sooner? You got to understand, it's a small town. You have people from Eagle Pass, from Del Rio, Laredo, San Antonio responding to a small community.

CHANG: Many Americans are also asking, what can be done at the legislative level about gun violence like this? Joining us now to discuss the political stumbling blocks that keep gun legislation from passing are NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson and Texas Newsroom reporter Julian Aguilar. Hey to both of you.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Happy to be here.

JULIAN AGUILAR, BYLINE: Thanks for having me on.

CHANG: Julian, I want to start with you. In the wake of what happened in Uvalde, what kinds of conversations about gun control are you hearing right now in Texas?

AGUILAR: The conversations are predictable. And I say that because it's similar to what happened after previous mass shootings, including the 2019 shooting in El Paso, which I covered. Democrats immediately call for gun control, and Republicans say that if the legislature passes more strict gun laws, then they're hurting law-abiding citizens. Just listen to what the state's attorney general, Ken Paxton, said on Fox News yesterday.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KEN PAXTON: There is a law against murder. He's not going to follow a single gun law if he's willing to violate a murder law.

AGUILAR: And yesterday during a press conference to give more details on the shooting, Governor Greg Abbott pointed out Chicago, New York and Los Angeles, cities that have tougher gun laws on the books but laws that he says doesn't work. And that's why he said Texas doesn't need more gun laws. Abbott focused on problems with mental health during the press conference, problems with access to it in Uvalde. This is what he said yesterday.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GREG ABBOTT: Anybody who shoots somebody else has a mental health challenge, period.

AGUILAR: It's important to note that, at the same time, Abbott pointed out that the gunman did not have mental health issues as far as he knew. And after the El Paso shooting, Abbott's focus on mental health got pushback from mental health experts who said that's not the sole issue that's to blame.

CHANG: I mean, after previous mass shootings in Texas, can you talk about what the movement for gun control has looked like in your state? Like, how has that movement evolved?

AGUILAR: You know, it's evolved over time. But, again, there's been little done at the legislature. So last June, Governor Abbott signed seven laws that expanded gun rights, actually. This was just after the El Paso Walmart shooting and the one in Odessa a few weeks later. So those two shootings were - claimed about 30 lives. And one of the laws that the governor signed was a law that allows people to carry - legally carry handguns without licenses. And Abbott said that - then at the time that Texas will always be a leader in defending the Second Amendment. After the Santa Fe School shooting, which happened in 2018 and left 10 people dead, Abbott called on state lawmakers to consider a red flag law that would allow state courts to take away firearms from people who are a danger to themselves or others. And eventually, he backed away.

The legislature did pass laws that were more focused on mental health resources and giving teachers more access to guns on public school campuses. And just after the Uvalde shooting, you know, the lieutenant governor instead - he told Fox News that maybe it would stop someone if the targets were hardened, like if schools had just one door.

So, I mean, in the aftermath, you know, gun control legislation can't even be passed in Texas until January 2023. That's when the state legislature gavels back in for the regular session. That's unless the governor calls a special session for gun control, which he likely won't.

CHANG: And, Mara, I want to bring you in here now because when it comes to federal gun control legislation, what have been the hurdles in the Senate?

LIASSON: The hurdles in the Senate are simple math. If you don't have 10 Republicans, you're not going to pass anything. And in the past, even the most sincere bipartisan efforts, like the one that Pat Toomey and Joe Manchin tried to pass, the most incremental kinds of reform like background checks have failed. So Democrats say, why would it be different this time if it wasn't different after Sandy Hook or Parkland or El Paso? So Democrats are pretty pessimistic even though there is yet another bipartisan effort underway right now, this time with Republican Susan Collins of Maine and Chris Murphy, a Democrat from Connecticut.

And what's happened since the last time the Senate tried and failed is that guns have become even more entrenched as the bedrock part of the Republican base identity. In other words, for white rural Republican voters, other than maybe abortion and the big lie, I can't think of a single issue that's more central to their partisan identity than the Second Amendment.

Now, Joe Biden argued the other day the Second Amendment is not absolute. And it's true. We already have gun control in this country. You can't go out and buy a machine gun, a fully automatic weapon. So we have gun control. We're just arguing about how much of it we want.

CHANG: OK. So I get that the Second Amendment is central to the Republican identity, but aren't they facing any kind of pressure to do something on gun control?

LIASSON: Well, maybe. But remember; Republicans are relatively insulated from majority public opinion, especially on this issue. You know, 88% of voters tell pollsters they're for background checks. Sixty-seven percent of voters say they're for an assault weapons ban. But because we have a system that advantages minority rule in the United States Senate, Republicans don't really have to cater to that majority opinion.

You know, the Senate is an institution that was designed by the founders to protect the minority party's rights. But over time, because of the way the population has sorted itself out, we pretty much have minority rule. Right now 50 Democrats in the Senate represent 44 million more people than the 50 Republicans. And that means that Republicans really don't run any political risk for voting against popular gun control measures.

CHANG: Well, if Senate Democrats are unable to pass anything, I mean, what can Democrats do outside of the legislative process?

LIASSON: Well, there might be some more executive orders that the president can sign. What Democrats say they don't want to do is just give in and give up. That's why that Onion headline is so powerful - you know, the satirical magazine quote, "No Way To Prevent This, Says Only Nation Where This Regularly Happens." Democrats say even if you can't pass something, it's worth advocating for it, fighting for it, bringing things to the floor to force Republicans to say they're against universal background checks. And there are a lot of Democrats who actually think guns are a cultural issue, the rare cultural issue, that can work for Democrats because majorities of Americans are for these gun control measures.

CHANG: Well, Julian, when it comes to Texas specifically, historically, what have attitudes towards gun control been like according to polls?

AGUILAR: Right. Well, polling shows that Texans' opinions vary depending on the type of gun in question. So overall, generally, about 43% of people said gun laws should be more strict. And that's according to a Texas politics poll by the University of Texas that was released in February of this year. And that number is down over the last few years. You know, for example, in 2017, it was 51%.

And if you break it down by party, it's pretty predictable. Democrats say gun laws should be more strict, you know, more than 80%, while only about 12% of Republicans say the same thing. In the poll last year the Texas Tribune and University of Texas conducted showed that a solid majority of Texas voters, 59%, didn't think adults should be allowed to carry handguns. So that specifically dealt with handguns. But long rifles have been legal to purchase and carry without a permit in Texas for decades now. So that's where the split is, is depending on what type of gun it is.

CHANG: That was Texas Newsroom reporter Julian Aguilar and NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson. Thank you to both of you.

LIASSON: Thank you.

AGUILAR: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF VICTOR XAMA SONG, "EU CHOREI NAS MARGENS DO RIO NEGRO") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.