What can local governments do about gun violence? Not much, says Texas law.

by | Aug 12, 2019 | Gun violence, Policy

Texas law is clear about what counties can and can’t do when it comes to passing common sense gun reform.

“There’s a statute that says [the county] can’t do anything to regulate firearms,” Special Assistant County Attorney Douglas Ray told The Signal. 

That statute, Ray said, prevents municipalities from adopting regulations that relate to the transfer, ownership, licensing or registration of firearms. “About the only thing we can do is regulate outdoor shooting ranges in terms of noise,” Ray said.

This past legislative session, Gov. Greg Abbott signed a bill strengthening that statute and further restricting counties from lifting a finger to act on gun violence. The state crackdown on local self-governance leaves county leaders with limited options– almost none– to tackle the root cause of gun violence, which is of course, guns.

However, this doesn’t mean the region must sit idly by. One proposition by Houston Democrats is to take on the industry’s manufacturers and sellers. In a recent email following the El Paso mass shooting, the Harris County Democratic Party called on city leaders to divest from gun manufacturers that don’t do background checks at gun shows and to restrict gun shows on Houston and Harris County property.

The Signal ran the list of ideas through special assistant Douglas who said would all depend on the details of the ordinances as well as Attorney General Ken Paxton’s legal interpretation of the changes to county law.

Outside of passing laws, one option that has grown more popular in recent years is gun buyback programs, or when local governments purchase privately owned firearms with the goal of reducing firearm ownership rates– and idea floated by Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo during her campaign last year. A spokesperson for Hidalgo’s office said in an interview tthe county judge was currently gathering more information on what Harris County can and can’t do to tackle gun violence and said the office would comment at a later time.

Last year, Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez kicked off a similar “Safe Surrender” program to allow people charged with domestic violence to temporarily store firearms with authorities. Under Texas law, residents convicted of domestic violence misdemeanors are prohibited from purchasing or owning firearms, but there are some serious gaps that allow abusers to get ahold of these firearms.

Closing those gaps is of critical importance, considering more than half of mass shootings, representing 94 nationwide incidents between 2009 and 2017, were by gunmen who shot at current or former partners or family members, according to research by nonprofit Everytown for Gun Safety.

More than 90 percent of Texans say they support universal background checks, according to a 2018 Quinnipiac University poll. Despite that, the GOP has ignored the will of Texans by doing the opposite: loosening gun laws and restricting local leaders from doing anything about it.

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