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Texas House panel votes to raise the minimum age to buy AR-15-style rifles

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

There was cheering during a Texas House committee meeting this week in Austin. Two Republicans broke with their colleagues and voted with Democrats to advance a bill to raise the minimum age to buy AR-15-style rifles from 18 to 21.

(CHEERING)

MARTIN: But despite this celebration and national media attention, the vote was still one small move toward gun control in a red state with little appetite for it. The Texas Newsroom's Sergio Martinez-Beltran has this report.

SERGIO MARTINEZ-BELTRAN, BYLINE: The committee room was packed at capacity, with reporters lined in the back of the room and a mix of people wearing red shirts and T-shirts with the faces of their loved ones killed in mass shootings. It was an unexpected victory for gun control, but came after months of protests and advocacy.

NIKKI CROSS: It's about damn time.

MARIÍNEZ-BELTRAN: Nikki Cross was there. Her 10-year-old son, Uziyah Garcia, was killed at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde nearly a year ago.

CROSS: We are - we're not going to go away. We're going to, you know, fight this all the way to the Senate.

MARIÍNEZ-BELTRAN: But a vote in the Texas Senate is a long way from here. It needs to clear some key hurdles, and in reality, it probably will not make it for a vote on the House floor. That's the truth. This is Texas. Here, you don't have to pass a background check to buy a gun. Here, it's legal to carry a concealed weapon without a permit. And there are no laws to prevent most people convicted of domestic abuse from possessing a firearm. That didn't stop Republican Representative Sam Harless from voting alongside Democrats. Harless hugged the parents of the Uvalde victims after the vote and cried with them.

SAM HARLESS: It's very emotional. You know, it's a lot of people.

MARIÍNEZ-BELTRAN: Harless says he has two photos of 10-year-old Uziyah Garcia affixed to his computer that he looks at every day. One was a gift from Uziyah's parents.

HARLESS: It was the least we could do for the families. Shootings right now are just happening too often, so if this is something we can do to help stop it, then I'm all for it.

MARIÍNEZ-BELTRAN: But just a couple of days later, reality has set in. The top Republican, Governor Greg Abbott, is still not talking about measures to restrict gun access, not even after the shooting last weekend at an outlet mall in Allen, Texas, that killed eight people, including a 3-year-old boy. During a press conference at the Austin airport this week, Abbott said he's waiting to learn more details about that shooter.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

GREG ABBOTT: I believe in the coming days, the public will be much better informed about why and how this happened, and that will inform us, as Texas leaders, about next steps to take to try to prevent crimes like this from taking place in the future.

MARIÍNEZ-BELTRAN: Those next steps, however, are almost guaranteed to not include gun control measures. Since Abbott took office in 2015, there have been 11 mass shootings, with at least four deaths in places like schools, churches and shops. At some point in 2018, very briefly, Abbott considered so-called red flag laws. But years later, Abbott has shied away from them, in part because of the backlash from Republican leaders in Texas. And that's why it was surprising to see two Republican state representatives vote to advance the bill to raise the age to buy a semiautomatic rifle. I asked Representative Harless, one of the two, whether his vote puts him in a weird position with his party.

HARLESS: I've never made a vote worried about getting reelected. I make a vote for what I think is best for my community and my constituents.

MARIÍNEZ-BELTRAN: That vote of conscience could have political consequences.

For NPR News, I'm Sergio Martinez-Beltran in Austin.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Sergio Martínez-Beltrán is Nashville Public Radio’s political reporter. Prior to moving to Nashville, Sergio covered education for the Standard-Examiner newspaper in Ogden, Utah. He is a Puerto Rico native and his work has also appeared on NPR station WKAR, San Antonio Express-News, Inter News Service, GFR Media and WMIZ 1270 AM.

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