Joe Straus represented San Antonio in the Texas Legislature for fourteen years. He was Speaker of the House from 2009 to 2019.

He wrote in the Texas Monthly about the necessity of the state’s political leaders taking action against the crisis of gun violence. He believes that there is political will to take action. He believes that Texans want to see gun control. Let us hope.

A man and a child pay their respects at a memorial outside Robb Elementary School to honor the victims killed in a school shooting in Uvalde on May 29, 2022.
A man and a child pay their respects at a memorial outside Robb Elementary School, in Uvalde, on May 29, 2022.Dario Lopez-Mills/AP

This tragic moment in Texas—when fear is overcoming students, parents, and educators, and when so many Texans are feeling hopeless about the state’s efforts to stop the next mass shooting—demands the leadership and the political courage to finally consider any solutions that will help prevent gun violence in our schools and elsewhere. 

All week, Texans’ grief over the loss of precious young lives in Uvalde has been compounded by anger and frustration that the state has not been able to stop another shooting tragedy. It’s not, I suspect, that Texans expect their government to provide absolute certainty that another mass shooting will not occur. Rather, Texans just want to see that this state is making its best efforts, regardless of political calculations.

It’s true that Texas has taken steps since the shooting at Santa Fe High School in 2018 to prevent such tragedies. The state invested hundreds of millions of dollars in threat-assessment training for educators, mental health training, additional counselors at campuses, and school infrastructure upgrades including alarm systems and metal detectors. While Texas has not historically been known for prioritizing mental health care, the state has made real progress in the past six years by investing in better care for more Texans, with one point of emphasis being early intervention for troubled children and teenagers.

However, there remains an unwillingness to give serious consideration to gun reforms that command broad-based, bipartisan support among Texans and other Americans. For example, June 2021 polling from the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas at Austin showed that 71 percent of Texans supported background checks on all gun purchases. The project’s polling in October 2019 showed majority support for a nationwide ban on semiautomatic weapons. Many hunters and other law-abiding gun owners understand the need for restrictions as well. Sure, these provisions are less popular among the 3.3 percent of Texans who determine the outcome of Republican primaries, which basically have been proxies for the general election for the past 27 years. At some point, however, isn’t there a greater cause than assuaging primary voters? Those in public office have a duty to represent all of their constituents.

This may be the rare time when Texas would be wise to follow the lead of Florida. Since 2018, a “red flag” law in that state has been used nearly six thousand times to remove weapons from those who are deemed to be threats. Despite some encouraging talk about a red flag bill after the Santa Fe tragedy in 2018, the idea has not gained serious traction here. But it should be at the top of the list of ideas our elected leaders consider as part of a long-overdue look at meaningful gun safety. Texas should also take a long look at whether someone as young as eighteen should be allowed to purchase the types of exceptionally lethal weapons that the Uvalde shooter bought—and the requirements that ought to be met before such a purchase can be made. Is it good policy to make it harder for an eighteen-year-old to buy a beer, or get a driver’s license, than to acquire a military weapon and outgun law enforcement? 

Finally, given what we have learned about the fatal mistakes made by law enforcement during the shooting, the state should undertake a comprehensive review of the speed and effectiveness of law enforcement responses during mass shootings, so that we can clarify accountability and learn from mistakes.

Even in Washington, efforts have begun to find bipartisan compromise on gun legislation. I don’t know what will come of it, but I’m encouraged to see that our U.S. senator John Cornyn will be one of the leaders of those bipartisan talks.

As I argued after the 2019 shooting in El Paso, Texas can change the status quo if our elected leaders engage in a good-faith debate over gun safety. Now, like then, it is time for our legislators and our governor to listen to the fears and the concerns of Texans, as well as the views of experts who can provide serious, sober analysis of what will work, without the taint of politics. We are back at the same point where we were in 2019, but we don’t have to make the same choices. This moment calls for leaders willing to put politics aside and objectively consider every idea that might help prevent future tragedies—and they should start during a special legislative session this summer, before parents send their children back to school in August.

It’s been said that legislators act only when facing a crisis. Well, the epidemic of gun violence is a crisis by any measure. It’s past time to treat it like one.

Joe Straus represented San Antonio in the Texas House of Representatives for fourteen years, serving as Speaker of the House from 2009 to 2019.