This week marked a year since the shooting at Robb Elementary in Uvalde, Texas, in which 19 children and two adults were killed. In that year, law enforcement officials blamed for the excruciatingly slow response to the attack have been fired, but the community has seen little else in the way of closure. Investigations into the police response remain open. No statewide gun reforms have been passed.
To understand how the state of Texas has responded—or failed to respond—to the shooting in the past year, Slate spoke with Scott Braddock, the editor of the Quorum Report (the state’s largest political newsletter) and co-host of Texas Take, a state politics podcast for the Houston Chronicle.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Slate: How would you sum up what this past year has been like?
Scott Braddock: The families in Uvalde have been very outspoken about what they wish the state government would do after their children were slaughtered. We’ve had our share of mass shootings: El Paso and Santa Fe, and more recently, in Allen, Texas. But the families in Uvalde got involved in partisan politics in a way that we haven’t seen previously in the state.
Some of the mothers and fathers of children who were killed got involved in Beto O’Rourke’s campaign for governor against Greg Abbott, including appearing in some of his television ads, where the descriptions of the children were included. They were some of the most, I think, powerful political ads I’ve seen in the state. It became a centerpiece of O’Rourke’s campaign against Abbott. Of course, [O’Rourke] was unsuccessful. But after that campaign was over, they stayed involved, pressing for change at the Texas Capitol.
Sometimes you would see families from Uvalde rallying outside the governor’s mansion at 5 in the morning, screaming on bullhorns: We can’t sleep because our children are dead, so you shouldn’t be able to sleep either.
What policy changes were the families asking for? Are they all on the same page?
They testified in hearings at the legislature, pressing mainly for legislation that would raise the age for legal purchase of certain firearms. The families are pretty united that raising the age would make a difference. It would have, in their estimation, prevented what happened to their children. And I think when you look at what they are asking for, and what Democrats in the legislature have asked for—these are not gun confiscation programs. This is not a mandatory buyback program. They’re pushing for raising the age, red flag laws, and things like that, which are the bare minimum when it comes to gun restrictions.
Within the group of families who were directly affected, it’s pretty close to consensus; Within the community of Uvalde, that’s not true. Uvalde and Uvalde County are very conservative and went heavily for President Trump in the last presidential election. Beto O’Rourke was trying to make the massacre in Uvalde one of the centerpieces of his campaign, and Abbott still trounced O’Rourke in Uvalde County.
Texas has not passed any of those gun control measures. Why is it that the lawmakers won’t budge?
In this state, the election of consequence is the primary in March. The Republican primary decides who will run Texas, and it dictates what policies the people in charge will support. We’ve seen the voter turnout increase in general elections, but Democrats still aren’t at the point where they can truly make them competitive. And so the March primaries are still the only thing that matters. And Republicans in the legislature are fearful that voters would punish them for supporting anything that might look like gun control.
That fear might be unfounded. It’s completely untested: They have never voted for anything that could be called gun control in this state. In Florida, when Rick Scott was governor, the Republican-led legislature passed a slate of gun restrictions that was signed into law by the very conservative Gov. Rick Scott after mass shootings there. And in the following primary, none of the Republicans who voted for those gun laws lost their primary. So it’s unfortunate that [Texans’] Republican office-holders are so afraid of taking a stand on this. But Texas is ruled by fear of primary voters when it comes to gun legislation. And as of now, there is no incentive for the Republican leadership to change anything about the way the primary system works.
Do you think the families are making a difference at all?
They’re moving the needle. The conversation is different. It’s not just that we’re talking about them a year later; it’s that we’re still talking about them a year later. We never stopped. And that’s never happened previously with a mass shooting in the state. That didn’t happen with the El Paso shooting at the Walmart. That didn’t happen after the Santa Fe shooting or Sutherland Springs. I don’t think that’s going to happen with the shooting in Allen, Texas. But Texans have never stopped talking about Uvalde.
I was listening to one of the mothers testifying before a Texas House committee, and she had driven all the way from Uvalde to Austin, which is three hours at least, to show up for a hearing at the Capitol at 8 a.m. She didn’t get to testify until 13 hours later. These families have been jerked around by the legislative process in a way that’s pretty shameful. But when she was testifying, she compared having to wait at the Capitol to testify to waiting to have the death of her daughter confirmed at the makeshift morgue in Uvalde. And she said, “Did you think we would go home?” There was silence in the room. These folks have changed the discussion in a way that is remarkable. On that committee, two suburban Republicans voted yes for the bill to raise the age. And without the voices of those families, I’m here to tell you that would not have happened. On May 23, 2022, I could not have imagined that any Republican lawmaker would vote to raise the age in the state. And now two have. Does that pass the law? No. Does that move the needle in the right direction? It does.
I know people in the state government who have seen all the evidence, and they say to me, “I can’t sleep at night because of what I saw.” And my response to them is to say, right, if everyone could see it, no one could sleep until we change things. I get that there has to be a sensitivity to what the families want. Some of the families don’t want for the evidence to be released and published everywhere. But for some of the families, they would like it to be an Emmett Till moment. So they could say, “look what they did to my baby.”
Did you know all Texas lawmakers were offered a deal by the state police force to sign a nondisclosure agreement so that they could view all of the evidence that [the Texas Department of Public Safety] has about the shooting?
I did not know that. Have they taken the police up on the offer?
The vast majority of lawmakers have not. The state senator for the area, Roland Gutierrez, signed the NDA. He has seen the evidence. I’ve known Roland since he was a member of the Texas House [from 2008 to 2021]. Gutierrez is a changed man. He gave a speech last week on the floor of the Texas Senate in which he said, “You haven’t seen what I’ve seen. I would encourage all of you to sign the NDA and take a look at what’s there. The videos, the pictures—you’ll hear the sounds of the police throwing up as they enter the room and see what they see.” He said, “you’ve never seen so much blood.”
Another lawmaker who saw all of the evidence, Rep. Joe Moody from El Paso, shared in a legislative hearing earlier this year that the killer scooped up some of the blood from the children and wrote the letters LOL on a whiteboard in the classroom. How could you see those things and not be changed?
And Sen. Gutierrez was speaking last week. To me, he looked like he would collapse under the weight of PTSD. And at the end of his speech, he apologized to Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and to the other senators because the lieutenant governor has, on more than one occasion, asked him to stop mentioning guns and gun violence and Uvalde in the Texas Senate. At one point, Lt. Gov. Patrick told Gutierrez earlier this session that he would not be recognized to speak on the floor of the Senate if he kept doing that. When Gutierrez apologized, it was as if he was having to say he was sorry for being traumatized. I’ve been doing this a long time. I’ve never seen anything like that.
Do you think anything could change the political reality of the situation?
You know, the electorate in Texas is changing. Leaders such as Lt. Gov. Patrick want to portray this state as a rural state at heart. By the numbers, we’re not. For years we have had big cities that are basically Democratic: Houston, Dallas, San Antonio, Austin. The suburbs around those cities were pretty traditionally and reliably Republican until the last couple of election cycles. One thousand to 1,200 people are moving to Texas every day, and those folks bring their politics with them. Most of them are moving to those suburban communities. You have folks who aren’t necessarily Democratic voters, but they’re more open to voting for either party. So that’s where you have real swing areas of the state. And those are not small places. Those areas represent millions of votes in Texas. So with the right candidate and message and money, something could change.
In 2014, when Wendy Davis ran against Greg Abbott, about 4 million people voted in that election, and Abbott beat her by 21 points. Four years later, in 2018, more than 8 million voted, and Beto O’Rourke came within 3 points of beating Ted Cruz. So I think the electorate has been fundamentally remade.
And there is a recognition among Republican leadership that they need to move in at least some ways toward the center. But they have created a monster in the Republican primaries. If you look at the kind of legislation that they’re passing this session, it’s a red meat buffet for those primary voters. But these things happen generationally. Ten, 20 years from now, this state will not be what it was.
What about more immediately? Is there a chance for quicker change?
One thing that would be terrible for Republican candidates in this upcoming election is if former President Trump is the Republican nominee. Suburban Republican officeholders will tell you that that’s their worst nightmare. They would have to run that much harder in their races to be able to beat Democrats in suburban areas. Republicans in the state have drawn political districts in such a way that they’ve put up fortresses around themselves, but for the governor’s race or the Senate, statewide races, you can’t redistrict. And so if you get another competitive election, like you had in 2018, all bets are off. I think just like those Uvalde families, they hold out hope. One of the old hands around the Capitol says: Things never change in Texas politics until they do.