This article was originally published at ProPublica, a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative newsroom.
Without mentioning the Uvalde mass shooting, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott last week declared school safety a priority for the current legislative session and again dismissed calls for more laws that would restrict access to guns.
“Some want more gun laws, but too many local officials won’t even enforce the gun laws that are already on the books,” the governor said during his annual State of the State address. Without providing a source or clear data, he then asserted that “most gun crimes are committed by criminals who possess guns illegally.” Abbott proposed a 10-year mandatory minimum sentence for people who are not legally allowed to have a firearm but have them anyway.
“We need to leave prosecutors and judges with no choice but to punish those criminals and remove them and their guns from our streets,” said Abbott, a Republican.
But Abbott’s speech avoided a glaring reality: The majority of the state’s 19 mass shootings over the past six decades were carried out by men who legally acquired firearms, according to an investigation by ProPublica and The Texas Tribune published before his speech. Guns were legally obtained in 13 shootings, including two in which the shooter was not allowed to have one but took advantage of a loophole in the law that does not require background checks for firearms that are acquired from private individuals. Firearms were obtained illegally in three instances. The rest of the cases were unclear.
The news organizations’ analysis found that lawmakers failed to pass at least two dozen bills that would have prevented people from legally obtaining the weapons and ammunition used in seven of the state’s mass shootings. Such measures included requiring universal background checks, banning the ownership of certain firearms and raising the minimum age to purchase an assault weapon from 18 to 21 years old.
State lawmakers instead have loosened restrictions over the years on publicly carrying guns while making it harder for local governments to regulate them.
Brett Cross, whose 10-year-old son was among the 19 children and two teachers killed last year at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, agreed with Abbott that criminals should not have access to guns. But, Cross said, the governor’s comments ignore the fact that the people responsible for many mass shootings did not previously have a criminal background.
“Before May 24, our shooter was not a criminal,” Cross said. “If this shooter hadn’t been able to just go in and buy those guns literally two days after his 18th birthday, then my child would still be alive.” Abbott, he said, “wants to be reactive instead of proactive, and proactive is what we need to stop these things.”
The governor did not respond to multiple requests for comment on the news organizations’ investigation or about his remarks during his State of the State address.
Little evidence exists to support Abbott’s claim, said Bill Spelman, who worked for a national police association for seven years and has spent the last 30 years teaching and researching criminal justice policy.
“To just say that most gun crimes are committed by criminals who possess guns illegally is a statement you can’t back up,” said Spelman, an emeritus professor of public affairs at the University of Texas at Austin.
James Densley, who co-founded the Violence Project, a nonpartisan nonprofit research center best known for its extensive mass shooter database, said that Abbott’s 10-year mandatory minimum sentence proposal would do little to deter mass shootings because the shooter does not survive in most of those cases and in others is already facing life in prison. In the vast majority of the nationwide cases in which it is known how the shooters obtained their firearms, they did so legally, Densley said.
Densley said different forms of gun violence require targeted approaches. For instance, restrictions on assault-style weapons and large-capacity magazines could be effective at reducing mass shootings, but less so at curbing “everyday gun violence,” he said.
“And I think politicians actually know this,” Densely said. “They understand it intuitively. But they have to say what is politically convenient to satisfy the needs of their constituents and others. And so they often conflate these different forms of gun violence to be perceived to be talking about one thing when they’re actually talking about something else.”