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Gun loopholes and bids for secession: Bill deadline looms for state Legislature

Gabriel C. Pérez / KUT

Friday is the deadline for Texas lawmakers to file bills for this 88th session of the Texas Legislature. And as some lawmakers scrambled to get in their last-minute pitches, the spotlight is turning on some of what’s being proposed.

Two new bills, in particular, are making headlines at the moment. Jon Taylor, professor and chair of the Department of Political Science and Geography at the University of Texas San Antonio, joined Texas Standard to talk about them. Listen to the story above or read the transcript below.

This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:

Texas Standard: Let’s begin with a bill that’s being proposed by Sen. Joan Huffman. If this passes, it’s my understanding this would address an issue in a law that was passed back in 2009 concerning juvenile mental health records and background checks to purchase firearms. Can you explain what that is exactly? 

Jon Taylor: Well, there was a bill. It was a law passed in 2009 that basically was supposed to apply to all Texans regardless of their age, regarding essentially mental health issues – involuntary mental health hospitalizations. The idea being that anybody 16 or older, we should have that information regarding their attempts to try to purchase a firearm.

Well, tell me what exactly was left out of that bill and what is it that Huffman’s bill would do exactly, as you understand it? 

Unfortunately, the background check, according to at least the interpretation of some county clerks and basically people in charge within the counties – district clerks, county clerks, etc. – apparently some of them misinterpreted or just didn’t think that it was required for them to do such. The problem with that is, is that when local court clerks weren’t sharing the information, it meant that it wasn’t in any database, which is important when we think about what happened in Uvalde last year.

So this bill would what, compel clerks to provide juvenile mental health records to some kind of state database? Is that the idea?

Actually, it would require us not just to give it to a state database, but to the federal database, which is called the National Instant Criminal Background Check System – the NICS, as it’s commonly known. Everybody who is a federally licensed dealer for firearms has to basically check the system before they sell someone a firearm.

And so if someone had a record, it popped up on the system, they wouldn’t be able to make that purchase. That’s the idea?

That’s exactly right. Now, there will be gun rights advocates who would say, “well, that’s a violation of the Second Amendment.” Now, this is a public safety issue that comes into play that, in some respects, trumps the idea of Second Amendment rights, because you’re talking about public safety – particularly juveniles who are under the age of 18, and therefore are not covered under Texas gun laws when it comes to gun ownership.

This bill authored by Sen. Huffman unanimously passed out of committee last week with bipartisan support. Is that a harbinger of things to come once it comes before the full House? 

Absolutely. I would say definitely it is. I mean, let’s just back up the truck for a second here. It’s rare to see bipartisan support for anything right now in the state Legislature. To see this passed unanimously out of committee – basically across the board, Democrats and Republicans – it’s going to get reported to the state Senate floor then onto the state House. I think that this particular reform legislation is going to be on Abbott’s desk before the end of the session.

Let’s switch gears to another bill that may not have as much success. It’s one filed yesterday by State Rep. Bryan Slaton. He’s a Republican from Royse City. He wants Texans to be able to vote on secession, as I understand it. Do I have that right? 

You have that right.

Okay. So what’s the impetus for this? Do you have a sense of that?

Well, I’m taking a deep breath here because I made the mistake of commenting on Twitter yesterday about it. And the result was, is that you have all these people who are screaming about how Texas has the right to secede. “We have the right to do this. There’s nothing in the U.S. Constitution prevents us from doing such.”

Actually, there is. The Supreme Court decision in 1869, Texas v. White, which the Supreme Court clearly laid out that there is no right to secession. There is no right to leave the Federal Union. Simply put, Texas voters, we can do this if we want to have a vote, but it’s not going anywhere. It’s a waste of time, to be perfectly honest.

I don’t think it’s much of a limb to say that they would see this as a kind of political grandstanding. Could you say something about the kind of political dynamics underlying all of this? 

I would actually say yes, it is a bit of grandstanding. I should note the Republican Party of Texas had an independence plank in their party platform in 2022 under state sovereignty. They even mentioned nullification, which is a whole different doctrine that also led to what happened with the Civil War. And so to say that somehow that, you know, “we’re going to support this legislation,” one can make the argument that this is a reaction at least by conservatives – particularly on the hard right of the Republican Party – that this is more of a dig at the federal government, at Biden and at what they view as federal overreach.

That said, you know, in 2021, there was another referendum bill that was actually submitted by Rep. Kyle Biedermann from Fredericksburg. He actually did not run for reelection in ’22. And soon thereafter, you know, the bill died. The assumption is the same thing will take place now with Slaton’s bill – that it may not even see the light of day, let alone get any co-sponsors in either the House or the Senate. But you and I are talking about it, so therefore, it made a political splash, which is probably what he wanted more than anything else.

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Rhonda joined KUT in late 2013 as producer for the station's new daily news program, Texas Standard. Rhonda will forever be known as the answer to the trivia question, “Who was the first full-time hire for The Texas Standard?” She’s an Iowa native who got her start in public radio at WFSU in Tallahassee, while getting her Master's Degree in Library Science at Florida State University. Prior to joining KUT and The Texas Standard, Rhonda was a producer for Wisconsin Public Radio.