EL PASO, Texas (CN) – Texas lawmakers heard testimony Monday about an international border community still reeling from a deadly mass shooting at an El Paso Walmart in August that authorities believe was motivated by racist beliefs.
Jaime Esparza, the local district attorney who is now prosecuting the suspected shooter, Patrick Crusius, told lawmakers that he himself is among those still feeling “rocked and shocked” by the massacre that left 22 people dead and more than 20 others injured.
“I walked the Walmart while they were still there,” Esparza said, describing himself as a “seasoned prosecutor.”
“You can imagine what I’ve seen, but I’ve never seen or never witnessed what happened to us on August 3,” he said.
A special committee of the Texas Senate tasked with exploring solutions to “mass violence” heard descriptions of shooting victims still suffering emotionally and financially and of a community whose long-held sense of safety still feels at least temporarily broken.
The committee’s visit came just days after it held a similar hearing in the neighboring West Texas city of Odessa, where another mass shooting unfolded within the same month as the El Paso tragedy.
On Monday, Esparza pushed lawmakers to adopt legislation that would ensure people convicted of domestic violence and who are not allowed to have guns for a period of time do actually surrender their weapons.
“All we’re asking is to enforce the current state law,” he said. “We just don’t have that process.”
Much of the recent political discussion about potential gun regulation in Texas and across the U.S. has centered on the prospect of new “red flag” laws that would limit a person’s access to guns if they are found to be a threat.
President Donald Trump has voiced support for the idea and Texas Governor Greg Abbott asked for lawmakers to consider it as part of a broader response to a high school shooting in 2018.
Texas state Senator John Whitmire, a Houston Democrat, expressed support for such laws at Monday’s hearing, referring to them as “reasonable measures.” State Senator Jose Rodriguez, an El Paso Democrat, pushed a red flag bill that ultimately died in the last legislative session.
Two Republicans at Monday’s committee hearing suggested they were open to the idea of giving doctors or other medical professionals the power to identify if someone in their care is experiencing a mental health crisis, which could open the door to gun restrictions.
“Maybe that’s something we can look at,” said state Senator Joan Huffman, R-Houston, who brought up the fact that a bill along those lines had been discussed a few years ago.
State Senator Donna Campbell, R-New Braunfels, an emergency room doctor herself, suggested the medical community would support the idea.
“Physicians would embrace a policy that allows for a temporary hold for those who we know can cause harm to themselves or others,” she said.
Multiple pro-gun advocates spoke up Monday, telling lawmakers they opposed any new rules on guns.
“If you restrict the rights of responsible, legal gun owners, all you do is empower the criminal,” said Chris Yost, an El Paso firearms instructor and U.S. Army veteran.
Other speakers pushed lawmakers to do more to financially compensate victims of the El Paso shooting.
Multiple attorneys from the organization Texas RioGrande Legal Aid testified that people injured in the shooting are suffering from growing hospital bills and lost wages from missed work. Families aren’t getting nearly enough money from the state’s victims compensation fund, the attorneys said.
Alongside his policy recommendations, the local district attorney expressed concerns about the lingering emotional damage from the Walmart shooting.
“I like ‘El Paso Strong,’” Esparza said. “I want us to be strong, but I think there’s this undercurrent of emotional hurt and trauma that needs to be addressed.”