In survey after survey during the past seven years, many Texas Republican voters, in most cases a majority, have said that gun laws should be left alone. Yet, during that same period, state leaders and the Legislature have repeatedly made gun laws less restrictive, making it easier to openly carry handguns in more places and with less training.
This dynamic culminated last year, when 53% of Republicans again said that their preference was to leave gun laws alone, at which point the Legislature removed the last of those training and licensing requirements.
When it comes to background checks, the gap between Texas state leadership and Texas voters is even starker. Large majorities of Texas voters, like most Americans, consistently express support for universal background checks for all gun purchases, 71% as recently as June 2021. This includes 61% of Republicans. A majority of Republicans have also expressed support for red flag laws.
This is not to say that Texas Republicans are in favor of significantly stricter gun control laws, but they are open to certain kinds of safety-oriented changes to gun laws understood in the context of their overall support for gun rights and ownership.
In other words, our state lawmakers could lead the charge for smart gun control policies.
At the end of the most recent legislative session, for instance, 61% of Texas Republicans approved of the state leadership and the Legislature’s handling of gun violence. Even more (80%) approved of their handling of Second Amendment rights. And past polling indicates that Republican attitudes toward guns and gun control are unlikely to change significantly, even in the wake of a tragedy as horrific as what occurred in Uvalde.
So it’s complicated, but we may be making it more complicated than it needs to be. Much of this complexity comes down to the philosophical fault line between the parties on the nature of guns in America. When asked in April of last year whether the U.S. would be more or less safe if more people carried guns, 61% of Republicans said the U.S. would be safer; 74% of Democrats said the U.S. would be less safe. But when asked about policy changes that would keep these guns out of dangerous people’s hands, respondents tend to be less partisan.
It’s this overall dynamic between and among partisan views that could provide a path forward by making the case that Texas can strongly support people’s rights to carry guns, as Texas public policy already does, while also taking modest measures to confirm that gun owners are not an obvious threat to anyone.
Such an approach could be politically savvy, both locally and nationally, especially if Gov. Greg Abbott has national ambitions, as some suspect he does. As Texas becomes more politically competitive at the statewide level, it’s important to note that key electoral groups support universal background checks, including 57% of independents, 71% of suburban voters, and 78% of Hispanics. At the same time, a background check system would neuter the argument of Texas Democrats that state leadership is doing nothing to address the risk of gun violence, even as mass shootings feel increasingly common in Texas.
The promise nationally is even greater for Abbott. The governor is one of the only Republicans in charge of a large, diverse, urban state (at least 80% of Texans live in or around an urban area, of which the state has many, very large ones). It stands to reason that any advancement on gun control that originates from Democrats will be met with suspicion if not hostility by Republicans — especially in Texas. But it’s also possible to imagine Texas Republicans implementing a comprehensive background check system or even a red flag system that maintains the rights of Texans, shows Republicans in other states a path forward, and demonstrates for the party as a whole a case study in how to meet the demands of a large, diverse population.
If they can, it would be a defining moment for those who did it and would mark a shift in the agonizingly stale gun debate. It probably won’t happen, but it’s worth imagining why it could.
Joshua Blank is the research director of the Texas Politics Project at The University of Texas at Austin.
A version of this op-ed appeared in the Austin American-Statesman, San Antonio Express News, Waco Tribune Herald and MSN.