After Two Mass Shootings, What Does The Gun Debate Look Like In West Texas?

By Sally Beauvais and Mitch Borden

August was a month unlike any other for West Texas. Two mass shootings — one in the city of El Paso and another in Odessa — left 29 dead and dozens injured. The tragedies have pushed the Lone Star State into the national conversation on gun violence, once again. 

Texas is, in general, a gun-loving state. But what does the discussion look like on the ground for West Texans?

At Odessa’s Radcliff Stadium, less than a week after a gunman went on a shooting spree in the city, the Permian Panthers faced off against El Paso’s Franklin Cougars. (Mitch Borden / Marfa Public Radio)

“You kind of forget the tragedy that happened,”  said Kelly Benavides of Odessa. “You’re just here — Friday Night Lights. This is normal. This is what we do all the time,”

The two cities are almost 300 miles apart, but now, they’re more connected than ever. 

“You know sometimes it’s not about football, it’s about the community uniting together,” said Letty Alvarez, who traveled to the game from El Paso. 

“Both of our cities were attacked and held hostage by rage and hatred,” a voice boomed over the PA at halftime. “We join tonight at a high school football game to cheer and support our students. Tonight, we can also show the world that hate has no place in West Texas.” 

High school football became a part of the healing process for two West Texas communities, after mass shootings in El Paso and Odessa left 29 dead and dozens more injured. (Mitch Borden / Marfa Public Radio)

The recent mass shootings in Texas — plus others in Ohio and California — have reignited the political gun fight that follows high-profile shootings, time and time again. 

In Texas, liberal state lawmakers are pushing for a special session focused on gun violence. El Pasoan and Democratic Presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke called for a buyback of AR-style rifles. 

But this time, talk of tightening laws around firearms isn’t just coming from the left

The most notable example? Conservative Republican Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick.

“That gap of stranger-to-stranger we have to close, in my view,” Patrick told the Dallas Morning News several days after the Odessa shooting.

In Texas, private gun sales don’t require background checks — which is how the Odessa shooter, who had failed a federal background check and been barred from buying a firearm in the past, acquired his weapon. 

Patrick, an avid gun rights advocate, is talking about partially closing that loophole while protecting sales between family members and friends. 

It’s a surprising move that’s put him at odds with the National Rifle Association. But some everyday West Texans agree with him, like Odessa native Lori Bennington. She’s a retired special education teacher, and considers herself to be conservative, as well as a supporter of the Second Amendment. 

Before the shooting, she thought if someone wanted to buy a gun, they should be able to.

“But, you know, you need to think about these things now,” she told Marfa Public Radio at a town hall in Monahans following the shooting. 

Bennington’s been questioning some long-held beliefs.

“I don’t feel like it’s taking away my rights when you say, ‘Let’s regulate it.’ I don’t feel like they are marching in to take my guns away,” she said.  

150 miles south of Odessa, the recent shootings terrified rural West Texans too. 

“We have this idea of safety out here. I rarely lock my doors, leave my keys in the cupholder when I’m in the grocery store…but nonetheless, I mean, stuff happens,” said Sul Ross State University graduate student Michael Stangl, alluding to a 2016 high school shooting in Alpine that left 1 dead and 1 injured.

Stangl’s studying wildlife management. He says he understands the need for hunting rifles out in remote parts of the state, but also thinks Texas needs tighter gun control. 

“It’s just become such a polarizing and divisive thing. It shouldn’t be specifically binary like that. I think there needs to be a conversation where both sides are willing to make some compromises,” he said. 

But the spirit of compromise Stangl longs for is exactly what worries Ruben Rodriguez. He’s head of the local Republican Party in nearby Presidio County.

“You have to stop somewhere, because — a little increment here, a magazine capacity there, the length of a barrel — they’re nickel and diming this to pieces,” said Rodriguez. 

To him, every layer of gun restriction amounts to another small step by the government towards disarming the general public.

Ruben Rodriguez, chairman for the Presidio County Republican Party, joined a group of residents in July who urged local leaders to adopt a so-called “Second Amendment Sanctuary” resolution. (Sally Beauvais / Marfa Public Radio)

In July, a month before the shootings, Rodriguez joined a group ranchers and other residents at the Presidio County Courthouse to ask local leaders to join a grassroots gun rights movement. 

With cries of “this is the real Wild West,” and “don’t mess with Texas,” advocates urged the county to adopt a so-called “Second Amendment Sanctuary” resolution. Which they did, on that Wednesday July 10th. 

The decision sparked controversy among residents of the county, a Democratic stronghold in West Texas. 

The resolution is mostly symbolic, but supporters say it sends a clear message: The government can’t take their guns.

Asked if the El Paso and Midland shootings changed his thinking about gun laws and public safety, Rodriguez said no.

“The legal citizens with good intent should not be disarmed at the expense of preventing someone who’s going to get firearms, anyway, from getting them one specific sort of way,” he said. 

While he’s cautiously optimistic about the series of executive orders Governor Greg Abbott released after the Odessa shooting, Rodriguez doesn’t like the rhetoric from some Texas conservatives who seem suddenly willing to make concessions on gun policies. 

Republican State Rep. Brooks Landgraf, whose district covers Odessa, says he’s been hearing from a lot of constituents in the aftermath of the shooting. 

“It’s not just about, you know, whether or not the 2nd amendment is a good thing,” he told Marfa Public Radio. “There are so many layers to this. To just limit this to a gun debate wouldn’t do justice to the conversations that are taking place out there.”

Landgraf himself has worked to expand gun owners’ rights in the past. But after his home was attacked, he says he’s open to creative solutions.

About Sally Beauvais

Sally Beauvais reports on rural issues in Far West Texas. She also runs Marfa Public Radio's engagement efforts.
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