Uvalde and Austin, Texas – At the Nation Rifle Association’s (NRA) annual meeting, thousands of gun enthusiasts loudly applauded Republican Texas Senator Ted Cruz as he encouraged the crowd to stand up to liberal politicians whose “real goal is disarming America”.
“The problem isn’t guns, it’s evil,” Cruz said.
Cruz was speaking three days after an 18-year-old man killed 19 fourth graders and two teachers in the southern Texas town of Uvalde – the deadliest school shooting in a decade in a county where such tragedies have become an all too common occurrence.
Texas leads the nation in gun-related deaths according to the most recent data from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. More than 4,100 people died gun-related deaths in 2020 – from suicides, homicides and mass shootings. During the last five years, a series of horrific mass shootings have shaken Texas.
Massacre after massacre after massacre, including the shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde on Tuesday.
“Texas has repeatedly seen the face of evil. I’ve been on the ground after these tragedies. I was in Dallas in 2016, in Sutherland Springs in 2017, in Santa Fe in 2018, in El Paso and Midland-Odessa in 2019, and now Uvalde,” Cruz said, listing recent mass shootings in Texas.
Despite the killings, Texas gun laws have only been loosened in that time because of the NRA and politicians such as Cruz.
If Texas is the epicentre of gun violence in the United States, Cruz may be the pro-gun movement’s most prominent standard-bearer – one who represents one side of the polarized gun debate in the US, a point of view that gun supporters say is grounded in the Second Amendment to the US Constitution, which reads in part, “the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed”.
‘Good guy with a gun’
Exile Firearms, a gun store in Uvalde, sits in an almost treeless industrial area, about 200m from a US Border Patrol station.
On Friday, a lifelong Uvalde resident summed up one side of the political debate over guns in America as he sat in a pick-up truck outside the gun store. (The Uvalde school shooter bought his guns at a different store in town.)
Any gun restrictions, including increasing the legal age to buy a rifle – Texas allows 18-year-olds to buy AR-15 rifles – would be a slippery slope to more and more restrictions, the 24-year-old resident said. He asked to remain anonymous, citing his employer’s policy.
“Restricting guns won’t stop this. Methamphetamine is illegal and people still get it,” he said.
“The only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun,” the man added, repeating the often-used trope of the NRA.
In an online statement the day after the shooting in Uvalde, the NRA said it would “pray for the victims, recognise our patriotic members, and pledge to redouble our commitment to making our schools secure”.
The NRA has used its money and influence to whip people into a frenzy over fears that the government will take their guns, said Nicole Golden, the executive director of Texas Gun Sense, a bipartisan anti-gun-violence non-profit organisation.
The NRA has donated at least $442,000 to Cruz’s political campaigns, according to OpenSecrets, a government transparency group. The gun group has also spent more than $2m during the last five years lobbying Texas state legislators as they have loosened gun restrictions in the state.
And the organisation has successfully promoted the canard that guns actually make people safer, Golden said.
A 2021 University of Texas/Texas Tribune poll showed 61 percent of Republicans in Texas, an overwhelmingly Republican state where a Democrat has not been elected to statewide office in almost three decades, believe the US would be safer if more people carried guns. But public opinion on gun rights and gun control in Texas is not a monolith, Golden said.
“I’ve been doing this work for 10 years and there are also a lot of Texas gun owners who don’t buy into the fear-based narrative,” Golden said. “They take pride in being responsible gun owners. They understand there’s a problem, and they aren’t against common-sense gun regulations.”
Midday Saturday, cars and pick-up trucks filled the parking lot of The Range at Austin, a shooting range and gun store in Austin, Texas, about 260km (160 miles) from Uvalde. In a series of interviews, patrons expressed concern about potential gun restrictions in the wake of the mass shooting in Uvalde.
‘Cannot regulate crazy’
Adrian Ramirez, a 28-year-old Austin resident who works for the shipping company DHL, came to The Range to shoot with friends.
“I believe in the Second Amendment, and we need to be careful about any new gun restrictions,” Ramirez said. When asked about potentially raising the age to buy a rifle from 18 to 21, Ramirez looked at his friends.
“That’s something we could consider,” he said.
Michael Cargill, 53, the owner of Central Texas Gun Works in Austin, said that would be misguided. “You have 18-year-olds in [Uvalde] who work on farms and who need rifles for feral hogs and things like that,” Cargill said.
“It takes a crazy person to walk into an elementary school and kill babies. Changing the laws would have done nothing,” he added. “You cannot regulate crazy.”
Advocates like Golden say the common denominator in the recent mass shootings is easy access to guns, and high rates of gun ownership in the Lone Star State – an estimated 46 percent of Texans live in a household with a gun – disprove the good-guy-with-a-gun narrative.
During the shooting in Uvalde, there were as many as 19 armed members of law enforcement in a Robb Elementary School hallway while the shooter was inside a classroom with teachers and students, some of whom were alive, said Steven McCraw, director of the Texas Department of Public Safety, during a press conference Friday.
‘Politics and theatre’
In the wake of recent shootings, Cruz and other Texas Republican politicians continue to double down on “solutions” that have not seemed to work – namely, more relaxed gun laws and more guns. After signing laws in 2021 that loosened gun restrictions, Governor Greg Abbott remained defiant.
“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,” he said in a press release.
One of the measures, a so-called permitless carry bill, allows Texans to openly carry handguns without any training or license. Texas adults could already carry long guns without a license. Another measure allowed guests to store firearms in hotel rooms. Another legalised firearm silencers.
“You could say that I signed into law today some laws that protect gun rights,” Abbott said when he signed the permitless carry bill in June 2021. “But today, I signed documents that instilled freedom in the Lone Star State.”
Cal Jillson, a political science professor at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas, said Abbott does not believe the Republican rhetoric about guns, but “he’s intimidated and he knows he has to support it to get reelected”. The NRA has donated about $11,000 to Abbott’s political campaigns.
“The NRA has gotten Republican voters to believe guns are critically important to protect themselves from others and from their own government,” Jillson said. As for Cruz, “he always thinking about the political ramifications of what he might say. For him it’s politics and theatre”.
‘Is this the moment?’
The day after the shooting at Robb Elementary School in this predominately Latino town of about 16,000, Cruz attended a prayer vigil at the Uvalde County Fairplex, a venue usually home to rodeos and bull riding. A scrum of reporters surrounded the senator as he was leaving and peppered him with questions.
“Is this the moment to reform gun laws?” a reporter asked.
“It’s easy to go to politics,” Cruz responded. “I get that that’s where the media likes to go.”
The reporter continued to pressure the senator. “Why does this only happen in your country? I just want to understand why you do not think that guns are the problem.”
Cruz said: “You know what … this kind of politicisation … why is it that people come from all over the world to America? Because it’s the freest, most prosperous, safest country on Earth.”
The senator pointed his finger towards the reporter’s chest. “And stop being a propagandist.”