Since his days as Texas' attorney general, Gov. Greg Abbott has made his defense of the Second Amendment central to his political identity. For eight years, he had a perfect foil: then-President Barack Obama.
Whenever Obama called for a new gun control policy, Abbott pounced, making statements denouncing him, fundraising pitches aimed at gun owners, or both.
"Unlike President Obama, I don’t believe disarming the good guys is going to solve our crime problems," Abbott wrote in an email to supporters in 2015. In a 2016 fundraising email, he trumpeted: “The president wants a fight over our gun rights, so let’s give him one."
On Wednesday, President Donald Trump picked a bigger fight on gun rights than Obama ever dared.
“Take the guns first, go through due process second," Trump said in a striking meeting with U.S. senators in which he advocated for multiple gun control proposals long backed by Democrats.
Abbott’s response so far? Crickets. As of Thursday afternoon, none of Texas' top three Republican leaders — Abbott, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and House Speaker Joe Straus — had responded to The Texas Tribune's queries on Trump’s latest proposals.
In the wake of a Florida school shooting that left 17 dead, Trump announced support Wednesday for several ways to tighten restrictions on gun purchases and ownership, including broadening background checks and raising the age limit for some gun buyers to 21. He also said he had told the leaders of the gun-rights powerhouse National Rifle Association (NRA): “We’re going to stop this nonsense. It’s time.”
Trump's move has rattled gun advocates in Texas and around the country.
“I can't even put a sentence together. That was so shocking, so unexpected,” said Alica Tripp, legislative director of the Texas State Rifle Association, which works to defend Second Amendment rights in Texas. Trump’s comments, she said, amounted to throwing “5 million NRA members under the bus.”
Gun control proposals have been gaining some momentum following last month's shooting at a high school in Parkland, Florida. That state's Republican governor, Rick Scott, defied the NRA in announcing his support for raising the minimum age for certain gun purchases to 21. Yet when the Tribune surveyed all 38 Texans in Congress last week about that and another gun control proposal – banning large-capacity magazines – most lawmakers didn't respond.
Wednesday's statements by Trump — not just the president but the nation's leading Republican — mark the most significant shift in the gun control debate in years. If those words had come out of the mouth of Obama, Abbott and other top Texas Republicans would almost certainly have vilified him.
Consider their immediate reactions two years ago when Obama signed executive orders requiring more background checks during gun purchases.
Abbott said Obama had just “trampled” on the Bill of Rights: "Despite the president’s latest attempt to undermine our liberty, Texas will take every action to protect the Second Amendment rights of law-abiding citizens.”
Added Patrick: "If the president's goal is to sincerely help protect Americans, he should make it easier to legally purchase, train and use their weapons of choice for protection than trot out phony new regulations to stand in their way.”
Even Straus, widely viewed as the most moderate of the state’s top three elected officials, said Obama’s announcement showed "why we need to elect a Republican president who will not overstep his authority and who will protect the Second Amendment rights of law-abiding citizens."
Texas leaders have not been completely silent on guns since the Florida shooting. Abbott has ordered both the Texas Education Agency and the state’s higher education commissioner to take steps to ensure the safety of students. He’s also called for fixing some loopholes in the federal background check database for gun buyers and emphasized the need to study the mental health issues that can result in such violence.
And in a TV appearance last week, five days before Trump's big reveal, Abbott pushed back against the idea of raising the age of purchase for certain firearms, a proposal Trump now endorses.
"If, in this case, the age was 21 in Florida, do you think that would’ve stopped this guy from getting a gun and doing what he did?" Abbott asked Friday on Fox News. "Do you think he was really concerned about the law?”
Though this isn’t the first time Trump has strayed from Republican orthodoxy, Texas GOP leaders have been wary of criticizing him too harshly throughout his presidency. That appears to be due in part to Trump’s penchant for attacking his political opponents on Twitter in ways that galvanize his supporters.
Both Abbott and Patrick, who have primary challengers, were publicly endorsed by Trump on Twitter as recently as Tuesday, along with several other top Texas GOP leaders.
Tripp declined to speculate on whether the Texas State Rifle Association, whose political action committee has endorsed Abbott and Patrick for re-election, would take action if top Republican leaders didn’t slam Trump’s proposals. She said she's not even sure how the state's Republican electorate will reconcile Trump's position on guns with his role as the leader of their party.
“I’m not psychic,” she said.
The Texas Tribune is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.