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State Representative Joe Moody sits in the auditorium of St. Luke’s Catholic Church in El Paso on August 3, 2019, preparing for a religious retreat with a group of worshipers. That day, they were talking about community.
“A big part of that discussion was kind of, what do you do in your daily life to reflect God’s love in the community?” Moody remembers.
Then some law enforcement members of the group started getting calls and started to leave. Moody soon learned that a 21-year-old gunman opened fire on a local Walmart, killing 23 people and injuring many more in a racially charged rampage against Hispanic immigrants.
The El Paso Democrat said he visited the scene of the shooting and witnessed the pain of families waiting to hear if they would be reunited with their loved ones.
“You wouldn’t imagine something like this happening,” Moody said. “But…it changes you, and the urgency it puts in your heart is different.”
Three years after the shooting in his hometown, Moody is at the center of the state’s response to another mass shooting: the May 24 killing of 19 students and two teachers at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde by an 18-year-old gunman, the deadliest public school shooting in Texas history.
Texas House Speaker Dade Phelan named Moody deputy chairman of the House Robb Elementary School Inquiry Committee, which released its interim report in July. After much of the blame for a more than hour-long delay in confronting and killing the shooter fell on local police — specifically Uvalde School District Police Chief Pete Arredondo — the report also criticized the inaction of hundreds of state and federal law enforcement officers who responded.
The report also gave the public a detailed portrait of the shooter, highlighting the red flags that surfaced in his communications with friends and acquaintances online, and the ease with which he was able to legally purchase the guns and ammunition he he used during the massacre.
“What that tells me as a decision maker is [if] there are no legal impediments to doing what has been done here, so there should be,” Moody said.
Moody said a guiding promise he made to families of victims in El Paso – to continue fighting to improve gun safety and to keep guns out of the hands of “people who don’t need them ” – has guided his work ever since.
“We can’t be complacent and we have to do what we can to keep people safe,” Moody said.
But after each of the mass shootings in Texas in the past five years — Sutherland Springs, Santa Fe High School, El Paso, Midland-Odessa — calls to restrict gun ownership have gone nowhere in the country. Republican-dominated Texas Legislature, which instead passed laws to make it easier to carry guns in the state.
“I know the steepness of the hill ahead of us,” Moody said. “I’ve done it…so many times, I feel like Sisyphus, but you gotta keep doing it,” Moody said. “You have to keep working from every possible angle to get something done.”
Moody’s warning rings out a year later
Following the El Paso shootings, Governor Greg Abbott formed the Texas Safety Commission, which held a series of roundtables and recommended solutions to prevent mass shootings. The governor had held similar roundtables after the 2018 Santa Fe high school shooting — which killed eight students and two adults — that led to an action plan for school and gun safety. .
After the Santa Fe roundtable discussions, Abbott signed bills that would strengthen mental health initiatives and provide funding for schools to increase safety in their buildings. The Safe Schools and Guns Action Plan encouraged the Legislative Assembly to “study the possibility of creating a ‘red flag’ law to identify individuals who pose a danger to themselves or others and who have access to or possess firearms.
Ari Freilich, director of state policy at Giffords Law Center, a San Francisco-based group that promotes gun control, said roundtables held after the Santa Fe shooting seemed to suggest that future legislation about gun safety might be possible. In the end, it didn’t work.
“The recommendations fell far short of what was needed to meaningfully address the rising rates of gun violence across Texas and the devastating increases in the frequency and lethality of mass shootings,” Freilich said in a statement. E-mail.
In the 2019 legislative session, Moody introduced a bill to create a red flag law, but died without reaching the governor’s office.
After the El Paso massacre, the Texas Safety Commission released the Texas Safety Action Report, which made a series of recommendations for gun legislation. Abbott also issued executive orders that he said increased “law enforcement’s ability to respond to suspicious activity.”
But Freilich said the recommendations of the security commission “again largely focused on strengthening law enforcement training, data sharing and threat assessment systems” instead of focusing on mandatory background checks for the purchase of firearms.
A gun owner himself, Moody has introduced several bills aimed at improving gun safety.
In the 2021 legislative session, the first after the El Paso shootings, Moody introduced another red flag bill, which again failed, along with several other gun safety measures that did not. have not become law.
During this session, lawmakers gave gun rights advocates a big win after Abbott signed into law the 1927 bill, which allows Texans to carry a handgun without training or a license anywhere. a firearm is not otherwise prohibited.
Before his House colleagues voted on the unlicensed carry bill, a despondent Moody rose to address them.
“One day a tragedy will come to your community,” he said in an impassioned speech. “It has come to the community of many others, and it will come to yours too, because we are not accountable to members of our communities across the state. I pray that’s not the case, but it is.
Moody’s warning seemed prescient after the mass shooting in Uvalde exactly one year and one day later.
A wooden cross for comfort
Moody made his first visit to Uvalde as a member of the House Investigative Committee on June 15, wearing a special wooden rosary given to him by one of his Saturday church group members. Moody said he picked it up the day of the El Paso shooting and has carried it with him ever since.
Moody, the only Democrat on the three-member committee alongside Rep. Dustin Burrows, R-Lubbock and former state Supreme Court Justice Eva Guzman, said the review of investigative records into the Uvalde’s shooting had been difficult due to the violence they describe. But he said they owe it to the families of the victims to separate the facts from the misinformation.
In the aftermath of the Robb Elementary shooting, Abbott and other public officials announced they would allocate $105.5 million in public funds to mental health and school safety, including just over $11 million. would be spent on mental health services.
“As a state, we as a society need to do a better job on mental health,” Abbott said at a May 25 news conference. “Anyone who shoots someone else has a mental health issue. … As a government, we need to find a way to target that mental health issue and do something about it.
Moody calls the focus on mental health a “red herring” and said he fears stigmatizing people with mental illness.
Mental health advocates have warned against using mental illness as a scapegoat for gun violence. “A vast majority of gun violence is not attributed to mental illness,” the American Psychiatric Association said in a statement after Uvalde’s shooting.
As Moody’s looks ahead to the 2023 legislative session that begins in January, Moody says he must remain hopeful that more can be done to prevent another mass shooting.
“I wouldn’t go back [to the Capitol] if I had no hope,” he said. “If I don’t carry that with me, then I shouldn’t be in this job. … If you’re not ready to be difficult and challenged, then you have to find another line of work.
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