A gun and a prayer: How the far right took control of Texas’ response to mass shootings

The “God-given right” to self-defense has become a rallying cry in Texas politics, further cementing gun ownership as a holy cause and political identity. The state’s Republican leadership has spent decades carrying the banner.

click to enlarge People walk into the NRA Annual Meeting as people protest behind them Friday, May 27, 2022, at George R. Brown Convention Center in Houston. - TEXAS TRIBUNE / JUSTIN REX
Texas Tribune / Justin Rex
People walk into the NRA Annual Meeting as people protest behind them Friday, May 27, 2022, at George R. Brown Convention Center in Houston.
As the gunman approached her family cowering in the corner of the restaurant, Suzanna Hupp wanted nothing more than a gun in her hand.

But Texas law in 1991 didn't allow that, leaving her defenseless. Her parents died holding each other on the floor of that Luby’s restaurant in Killeen. Twenty-one other diners and the gunman also died that day.

The Luby’s shooting, as it became known, shocked the nation and galvanized Hupp, who escaped through a window. She spent the next 30 years, including 10 in the state legislature, fighting to give others the option she did not have.

Unlike other mass shooting survivors who advocate for gun restrictions – the parents of Sandy Hook students or the teenagers who watched their classmates die at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School – Hupp’s goal has been eliminating gun regulations.

For all the conversation about common sense and compromise, these are the two fundamental choices — the answer to preventing future tragedy is either fewer guns, or more.

At their core, these philosophies are not a Venn diagram. They are ideologically distinct and incompatible worldviews.

While there will be discussions in the coming weeks about incremental steps and public support for tightening gun regulations, the political reality is that three decades of Republican dominance have erased the middle ground. In Texas, the chosen response to mass shootings is a gun and a prayer.

The state's elected officials, influenced by an ultra-conservative religious movement and profit-driven gun companies, have chosen the path of least regulation, elevating firearms into a referendum on faith and freedom.

Addressing the state Wednesday after a gunman massacred 19 students and two teachers, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick made it clear how the state should respond to mass shootings.

“In these other shootings — Sutherland Springs, El Paso, Odessa, Santa Fe — it’s God that brings a community together. It’s God that heals a community,” Patrick said. “If we don’t turn back as a nation to understanding what we were founded upon and what we were taught by our parents and what we believe in, then these situations will only get worse.”

Texas is on a path that may not reflect public opinion, but absolutely reflects the larger political forces sweeping the state. And it’s not just Texas: Republican state legislatures, data shows, are 115% more likely to pass legislation loosening gun laws in response to mass shootings.

Texas remains among the more heavily armed states in the country — more than a third of Texas households have a gun, and while the rate of household gun ownership has declined nationally since the 1980s, it has not declined as quickly or consistently in Texas.

More than 1.7 million Texans have an active state firearm license, and Texas has more federally registered guns than any other state. Nationally, data shows two-thirds of gun owners own more than one gun, and nearly a third own five or more guns.

“If the states are laboratories of democracy, where we figure out what policies work, you might think over time we’d converge on a set of policies,” said Chris Poliquin, who researches gun laws at the University of California - Los Angeles. “But you don't actually see that on gun policy."

Protesters shout at attendees of the NRA Annual Meeting along in Houston on Friday. - TEXS TRIBUNE / JUSTIN REX
Texs Tribune / Justin Rex
Protesters shout at attendees of the NRA Annual Meeting along in Houston on Friday.
From sport to self-defense

When the pickup truck crashed through the plate glass window of the Luby’s, Suzanna Hupp assumed it was an accident.

When the driver pulled out a gun, she assumed it was a robbery.

It wasn’t until he started shooting — picking off patrons, one by one — that she realized what was happening.

“It took me a good 45 seconds, which is an eternity during something like that,” she said. “Now, it would be the first thing your mind goes to, but back then, we hadn’t had anything like that before.”

It was 1991, long before the era of active shooter drills and school lockdowns. It would be another eight years until the shooting at Columbine High School, and three decades before a man walked into an elementary school in Uvalde and massacred 19 students and two teachers.

It was also an era of much tighter gun laws in Texas. Hupp’s handgun was in the glove compartment of her car. She feared losing her chiropractor's license if caught violating the state’s prohibition on carrying a concealed weapon.

“I realized we were just sitting ducks,” she said. “That is just the most sickening feeling in the world to just wait for it to be your turn.”

Hupp emerged from that shooting with a new mission, and the gun rights movement had a new crusader.

“I testified in, I don’t know, 25 different states, some of them a couple of times,” she said. “And they all have concealed carry now.”

Her argument has been simple but effective: stricter gun laws would not have stopped the gunman who killed her parents. A gun would have. She believes the key to preventing more gun deaths is more guns — mental health treatment and better risk assessment, too, but most importantly, more guns in more places.

“Here’s the truth of the matter that no one can argue with,” she said. “If I’d had my gun that day, even if I had screwed it up somehow, it would have changed the odds, wouldn’t it?”

When Hupp first got involved in the gun rights movement, many states banned concealed carry and the United States was on the verge of passing a federal assault weapons ban.

But a change had been building for some time. Since the 1960s, the country had been in the process of shifting from what Wake Forest University researcher David Yamane calls “gun culture 1.0” — guns for sport or recreation — to 2.0 — guns for self-defense.

“A lot of people in developed, suburbanized parts of the country who maybe previously thought they didn’t need a gun anymore, because they’re not on the frontier, start to develop the notion that they might have to defend themselves,” Yamane said. “That link has become much more prominent these days.”

Hupp’s story capitalized on a previously unimaginable idea that a man might come into the restaurant where you’re eating and just start shooting. This free-floating fear has morphed in recent years depending on the moment — gun sales spiked during the original COVID lockdowns, and amid the 2020 racial justice protests, and they tend to rise after mass shootings like the one in Uvalde.

“In the '90s and 2000s, people really do start to see guns increasingly as a viable option to face down crime, uncertainty and unrest,” said Yamane. “There's an element of defensive gun ownership that looks at the gun as a tool of last resort for when the worst possible thing is happening.”

At the same time, the National Rifle Association began bringing more of its lobbying firepower to state legislatures, fomenting the idea that the world was full of things that needed defending against.

“The NRA built this identity around gun ownership, and then it portrayed that identity as being threatened,” said Matthew Lacombe, the author of Firepower: How the NRA Turned Gun Owners into a Political Force. “So the minority of Americans who oppose gun control are historically more politically active than the majority that support.”

In Texas, like other red states, the NRA slid sideways into the newfound alliance between evangelical Christians and the Republican Party, aligning gun rights with the religious right.

Gun ownership became a symbolic weapon in fighting the culture wars.

“I am not really here to talk about the Second Amendment or the NRA, but the gun issue clearly brings into focus the war that's going on,” said then-NRA President Charlton Heston in a 1997 speech. “Mainstream America is depending on you … to draw your sword and fight for them.”

And Texas did fight. In 1994, George W. Bush beat Ann Richards for the governorship after she vetoed a concealed carry law. In the decades since, Texas passed open carry, allowed guns on college campuses and in churches, prohibited cities from passing stricter gun laws and deemed the state a “Second Amendment sanctuary.”

Hupp left the Legislature in 2007. In the years since, she's watched ideas she said her colleagues once dismissed as “nuts” pass into law — like permitless carry and allowing teachers to carry guns.

As the Texas Legislature has steadily embarked on a conservative crusade, gun rights hasn’t just been on the list of priorities. In many ways, it’s the linchpin of the whole thing.

State Rep. Matt Schaefer, R-Tyler, at his desk on the House floor on Aug. 12, 2021. - TEXAS TRIBUNE / JORDAN VONDERHAAR
Texas Tribune / Jordan Vonderhaar
State Rep. Matt Schaefer, R-Tyler, at his desk on the House floor on Aug. 12, 2021.

'God-given' guns

In 2018, after a gunman killed 17 students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, NRA executive vice president Wayne LaPierre spoke to a conservative convention.

“There is no greater personal, individual freedom than the right to keep and bear arms, the right to protect yourself, and the right to survive,” LaPierre said. “It is not bestowed by man, but granted by God to all Americans as our American birthright.”

The idea that God has granted Americans a fundamental right to bear arms is not a new one, but it’s become an article of faith.

True believers derive the inherent right to self-defense by drawing a line from the Declaration of Independence – that all men are “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” — to the 2nd Amendment as the legal representation of God’s will.

This is the cross that some gun owners have chosen to bear — that their defense of gun rights is not just about firearms, but about ensuring the continued manifestation of God’s will on Earth.

Andrew Whitehead, author of Taking America Back for God: Christian Nationalism in the United States, said equating gun rights with the “will of the sacred” essentially erases any hope of finding a middle ground.

"If we do anything about gun control, we are turning our backs on God's desire and plan for this country and the Founding Fathers and all of those things,” Whitehead said. “It’s so strongly ingrained and has become so central to that identity, so to float the idea of gun control is almost to attack, in their view, their Christian identity.”

Christian nationalism is an effort to more closely intertwine evangelical Christian morality and American civic identity. It’s associated with a slate of other conservative political agenda items, all framed around bringing America and its citizen’s hearts back to God.

Modern Christian nationalism tightly defines a “true American” and a “true Christian” in largely white, evangelical, conservative terms, emphasizing capitalism, traditional gender roles and parents' rights.

Not all evangelical Christians subscribe to Christian nationalist ideas. But some of those ideas have taken hold in the Texas Legislature in recent years.

In 2019, after the second mass shooting in Texas in a month, state Rep. Matt Schaefer, R-Tyler, tweeted that he was “NOT going to use the evil acts of a handful of people to diminish the God-given rights of my fellow Texans. Period.”

Schaeffer’s tweet thread went on to say he opposed gun reform measures, including universal background checks, bans on assault weapons and mandatory gun
buybacks. Instead, he said he would support praying for the victims, for protection and for hoping “God would transform the hearts of people with evil intent.”

He also endorsed the idea of “giving every law-abiding single mom the right to carry a handgun to protect her and her kids without permission from the state, and the same for all other law-abiding Texans of age.”

Schaeffer did not respond to request for comment.

By citing Texans’ “God-given rights,” Schaeffer and
his fellow state legislators transform a gun into a symbol of morality, piety and identity.

“The ability to craft and create that narrative gets politicians who might not even be that interested in Christian nationalism in touch with people who are activated by that rhetoric,” said Whitehead. “And that can be very powerful.”

It’s not just gun control: support for Christian nationalist ideas is a predictor for support for a slew of other political agenda items, Whitehead said, including the most high-profile right now: ending abortion.

Gun rights and abortion occupy the same philosophical space in the Texas Legislature, where the conversation is centered more around morality and theology than facts and science. Government has a responsibility to defend life in the womb, the argument goes, and individuals a right to defend themselves.

“There is more of an entrenchment with the gun issue than almost any other issue,” said state Rep. Donna Howard, D-Austin. “There’s little room for any kind of discussion, any kind of debate, any willingness to look at compromises … even with abortion, there was more room to negotiate a few things.”

What comes next

After 10 people were killed in a school shooting in Santa Fe, Texas, in 2018, Gov. Greg Abbott suggested
considering a “red flag” law. Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick nixed it.

After 23 people were killed at a Walmart in El Paso and seven people were killed in Midland-Odessa in 2019, Patrick discussed expanding background checks. Instead, the Legislature passed permitless carry.

But after Uvalde, neither Patrick nor Abbott indicated any interest in reforming the state’s gun laws. On Fox News, Attorney General Ken Paxton said it’s unreasonable to think we can “stop bad people from doing bad things.”

“We can potentially arm and prepare and train teachers and other administrators to respond quickly,” he said. “That, in my opinion, is the best answer.”

While Democrats expressed their outrage — some more immediately than others — none of this came as any surprise to people who study gun issues.

Poliquin’s research shows that Republican-dominated states tend to pass legislation in the wake of mass shootings that make guns more readily accessible. Democrat-led states don’t see a statistically significant increase in gun laws of any kind after these events, in part, Poliquin hypothesized, because they already have strong gun control laws.

Republicans in Texas are acting on their party’s ideology around guns, which emphasizes more guns in more places as a deterrent to acts of violence. And even if that doesn’t reflect public opinion, they have no reason to anticipate backlash in the voting booth.

Even conversations about compromise are enough to rile up the faithful, and in a polarized and gerrymandered state like Texas, the political fringes are where a politician's career can be made or lost.

“The more the gun control advocates try to put in place what they euphemistically call common sense gun laws … those of us that believe in the Second Amendment and everything it was set in place to protect tend to hold much tighter,” Hupp said. “We recognize what their ultimate goal is, which is to completely disarm citizens.”

Donna Howard, one of a minority of Democrats in the state Legislature, said Texas’ approach to gun policy reminds her of the bumper stickers she would see in the 1960s: “America: Love it or leave it.”

It feels like her fellow legislators are telling her — and any Texans who want gun control — “if you don't like it, you can just leave,” she said.

“That’s not something I have felt until recent years,” she said. “This is my home, and the fact that what I believe and people like me believe, and the way we would like to have society structured, is just totally discounted, it feels like we don't matter.”

The Texas Tribune is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

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