HOUSTON (CN) – Gun safety is the most important issue of Democratic Congressman Eric Swalwell’s presidential campaign. Texas is synonymous with the Second Amendment. The juxtaposition brought candor Wednesday from Houstonians who gave Swalwell their opinions on the gun debate.
Swalwell’s “gun violence listening tour” stopped off at a downtown Houston coffee shop, and the four-term California congressman did not stop traffic.
The shop’s baristas did not step away from their espresso machines to gawk. His name provoked a shoulder shrug from one of them, white noise between customers’ orders.
Though Swalwell, 38, is a frequent guest on cable news shows – he also introduced legislation early this month to suspend the statue of limitations for sitting presidents, so President Donald Trump could be prosecuted for federal crimes he may have committed before or during his time in office – he is relatively unknown outside Capitol Hill and his East Bay congressional district.
He announced his presidential bid April 8 on the “Late Show With Stephen Colbert,” joining 23 other Democrats in the race.
But Swalwell’s focus on gun control has earned him the respect of grassroots organizers like Rhonda Hart. A former bus driver for Santa Fe Independent School District, Hart had just finished a bus run when shooting erupted at Santa Fe High School on May 18, 2018.
Hart said her daughter Kimberly Vaughan, a 14-year-old freshman, was shot twice with a sawed-off shotgun and twice with a revolver.
“She died almost instantly,” Hart said.
Prosecutors claim Dimitrios Pagourtzis, 18, shot eight of his Santa Fe classmates and two teachers to death. He is in Galveston County Jail awaiting trial on capital murder charges.
Hart told Courthouse News she quit driving buses after the shooting to advocate full-time for gun control.
Sitting next to Swalwell on a sofa Wednesday, Hart asked the 15 people who’d gathered for the roundtable discussion to compare Congress’ response to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks to its response to mass shootings.
Within two months of those attacks, she said, lawmakers created the Transportation Security Administration to step up airport security.
“There’s 2,996 people who died in 9/11, first responders, people in the towers,” she said. “We lose 40,000 people approximately a year to gun violence. That’s the equivalent of 12.3 9/11 attacks every year on American soil and we can’t do shit to save it?”
Swalwell said he’d met Tuesday in Houston with the Harris County Domestic Violence Coordinating Council and its leader, former family court judge Judy Warne, told him she’s trying to find ways to ensure people restricted by protective orders cannot get guns.
There are two challenges, Swalwell said. “It’s on the honor system,” he said. “So if you go to court and you have a protective order put on you in Texas, in any state, and the judge says you need to surrender your guns until this case is resolved. There’s no registry of guns.”
If the defendant says all they have is a .22 caliber rifle, a 9 mm pistol and revolver, law enforcement has to take their word for it, Swalwell said.
“There’s no inventory that the government has like a car registration to compare it to and say, ‘Well actually you’re not accounting for the AR-15, you’re not accounting for the Tech 9,’ whatever other weapon you have. So it shouldn’t be the honor system,” he said.
Swalwell is the only Democratic candidate calling for a ban on assault rifles and a mandatory national buyback of assault rifles. He said the Australian government bought more than 600,000 guns from its residents in 1996 after 35 people were killed in a mass shooting that year.
“They’ve had nothing similar to that in 20-plus years. And actually they’ve seen gun ownership increase for handguns, but the violence didn’t go up, so it didn’t affect anyone’s right to protect themselves,” he said.
Swalwell said the other problem with protective orders is the defendant can simply avoid licensed dealers, who are required to do background checks, and buy firearms at gun shows or in private transactions.
Hart said she believes police should aggressively enforce protective orders.
“I think if you’re going to have an extreme risk protection order, and I know this sounds extreme, but there needs to be a squad that goes in and forcibly removes all the guns,” she said.
Meghan Scoggins knows how helpless domestic violence victims can be even when the court system gets involved. She held a photo of her mother and said she’d been shot to death by her father.
“It was a domestic violence situation,” she said. “He’d had two prior domestic violence convictions. He’d served prison time for both of them as well as prison time for an unlawful discharge. And yet he was still able to have a gun.”
After the roundtable, Scoggins said on the day of the Santa Fe shootings she had called all her children to check on them. She pointed to her teenage daughter standing next to her.
“And this one right here, you know I asked her if she was OK. And she goes, ‘It wasn’t my school today,’” she said.
Despite her family history, Scoggins said she owns guns and they helped finance her education with prize money she won in pistol shooting tournaments.
“Literally that’s how I paid for college. I used my GI bill and made about $30,000 or $40,000 in a year to pay for college,” the University of Houston alumni said.
Swalwell’s Texas visit comes as a bill that would suspend laws prohibiting carrying handguns for seven days after a natural disaster declaration, so owners could flee their homes with their handguns and keep them out of the hands of looters, just landed on Governor Greg Abbott’s desk.
Aimee Mobley Turney, an attorney and gun-safety advocate for the League of Women Voters, said even though the bill passed she’s encouraged it eked through.
“We actually had votes in the Senate to kill it and one person flipped. So for Texas that’s huge. And we still have until June 16th to tell the governor not to sign it,” she said.
Swalwell sat and chatted with the group for 45 minutes, stealing glances at a TV screen displaying news of special counsel Robert Mueller’s statement Wednesday on the Russia investigation.
He stayed on topic even as his staff said he needed to step away to get on the phone with his congressional staff about Mueller’s statement.
“This issue is my top priority. Whoever is the next president unless they make it their top priority, they’ll always be responding to the next shooting . . . That’s the only way we’re going to get out of this rut of just this loss, grief, anger, thoughts and prayers, nothing. It’s just this cycle we have to break out of,” he said.
He wrapped up the roundtable with a gesture afforded by the intimate setting. He gave the crowd his email, firstname.lastname@example.org.
“It goes right to me and I promise to stay in touch and hear your stories,” he said.