How Texas loosened gun restrictions despite recent mass shootings
A 2021 law made it legal to carry handguns without a license or training.
Gun control advocates are again calling on Texas lawmakers to restrict access to firearms after at least 19 children and two teachers were killed in a shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, on Tuesday.
The suspect, 18-year-old Salvador Ramos, a student at Uvalde High School, is also dead, authorities said. Officials told ABC News that the suspect legally purchased two AR-style rifles on May 17 and May 20, respectively, just days after his 18th birthday.
In Texas, where there are few restrictions on purchasing firearms, individuals who are 18 years or older are legally permitted to purchase long guns, which include shotguns and rifles.
Republican lawmakers, who currently control the State Legislature, have repeatedly loosened gun restrictions even after recent mass shootings in the state.
"You are doing nothing!" Texas Democratic gubernatorial candidate Beto O'Rourke said, confronting Texas Republican Gov. Greg Abbott during a press conference on Wednesday.
In the wake of the Uvalde shooting, Abbott pointed to a "mental health" problem in the community during Wednesday's press conference and dismissed the suggestion that stricter gun laws could have prevented the shooting.
"I asked the sheriff and others an open-ended question and got the same answer from the sheriff, as well as from the mayor of Uvalde," the governor told reporters. "The question was, 'what is the problem here?' And they were straightforward and emphatic. They said, 'we have a problem with mental health illness.'"
Abbott echoed a common stance that many Republican lawmakers on both the state and national levels have repeatedly taken amid a nationwide debate on gun violence, which reaches a boiling point following each mass shooting.
According to the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, which advocates for gun control and studies gun laws across the country, seven of the deadliest mass shootings in the history of the U.S. happened in the country over the past decade. And four of those shootings, including the Uvalde shooting, happened in Texas.
Most recently, 25 people were killed in a mass shooting at First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, on Nov. 5, 2017. And in August 2019, 23 people were killed at a Walmart in El Paso. The gunmen, like the Uvale shooting suspect, used semi-automatic rifles in the shootings.
In the wake of these shootings, Abbott signed a series of bills into law last year designed to further ease access to firearms. He argued that each piece of legislation strengthens the Second Amendment, the right to bear arms.
"Politicians from the federal level to the local level have threatened to take guns from law-abiding citizens -- but we will not let that happen in Texas," Abbott said in a statement on June 17, 2021. "Texas will always be the leader in defending the Second Amendment, which is why we built a barrier around gun rights this session."
Among the bills signed by Abbot last year was House Bill 1927, dubbed as "Constitutional Carry" by gun rights advocates. The law made it legal for "law-abiding Texans" to carry handguns without a license or training. The law went into effect on Sept. 1, 2021.
"I'm not here to take anybody's rifles away. I'm not here to take anybody's guns away. But as this next legislative session unfolds in January here in Texas, I will seek to provide restrictions on access to these types of militarized weapons," Texas State Sen. Roland Gutierrez, who represents the district where the Uvalde school shooting took place in Texas, told ABC News Live on Wednesday.
"Again, nobody in this rural community uses that type of weaponry to go hunting," he added.
Amid criticism from gun control advocates, who argued for more restrictions in the wake of the El Paso shooting, Abbott defended the law, arguing that it "safeguards" the right to bear arms under the Second Amendment.
Abbott also singed into law in 2021 an amendment that loosened restrictions on handguns based on age.
In Texas, you had to be 21 years old to get a license to carry a handgun, but the 2021 amendment made it possible for 18-year-olds to receive a license if they meet other requirements, other than age, and if they are protected under various protective orders, including having been a victim of violence, stalking or sexual abuse.
"We have a governor and a Republican-controlled legislature that has chosen to put more guns on the streets, [and] make it easier for young people to access guns and weapons of war without training, without a license," Texas Rep. Veronica Escobar, a Democrat, told ABC News Live on Tuesday.
Escobar criticized the passage of the legislation loosening gun restrictions after it was signed by Abbott in June 2021 and said that in the wake of the El Paso shooting, Abbott has "chosen to betray the victims of gun violence."
Following the 2018 mass shooting at Santa Fe High School in Santa Fe, Texas, which left 10 dead, Abbott asked the State Legislature to consider a so-called "red flag" law that would allow court-ordered removal of firearms from an individual who is deemed to be dangerous.
But the Republican governor faced pushback from gun rights advocates in his own party, including Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick.
"It seems like there's coalescence around the notion of not supporting what's categorized as a 'red flag' law," Abbott said in July 2018, according to the Texas Tribune. "What is important is ... that we work together as a legislative body towards a solution to make our schools safer and to make our communities safer."
After the Santa Fe shooting, Abbott announced a "school safety" plan and later signed into law bills that would, among other things, strengthen mental health access in schools, heighten police presence, hire more school safety marshals and remove the cap on how many can carry firearms in public schools.
Abbott also signed House Bill 2622 into law last year, making Texas a "Second Amendment Sanctuary State by protecting Texans from new federal gun control regulations."
A 1994 federal assault weapons ban expired in 2004 -- a measure that Democrats and gun control advocates have long fought to restore.
According to the Giffords Center, a study of mass shootings in which four or more people were killed found that more than 85% of these fatalities were caused by assault rifles. Seven states and the District of Columbia prohibit assault weapons. In Texas, assault weapons are legal.
ABC News' Aaron Katersky and Matthew Fuhrman contributed to this report.