Seeking advice on how to respond to the Aug. 3 attack that left 22 dead in El Paso, Gov. Greg Abbott on Thursday morning convened the first of two planned meetings with politicians, experts and advocates.
Abbott said he wanted the Texas Safety Commission to help his office develop ideas to combat the rise of extremist groups, fight domestic terrorism and keep guns away from those who should not have them. Participants also will discuss potential laws and other action designed to prevent mass shootings and domestic terror attacks.
"We understand the magnitude of this issue, the imperative that we come up with solutions. We insist that we use this time very productively," Abbott said at the start of the meeting at his Capitol office.
Reporters were then asked to leave the room to facilitate an open discussion. Abbott said he will take questions afterward. The meeting is expected to last several hours.
A similar discussion will take place Aug. 29 in El Paso.
Joining the meeting were Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, House Speaker Dennis Bonnen, R-Lake Jackson, and five El Paso-area Democrats: state Sen. Jose Rodriguez and state Reps. Mary Gonzalez, Joe Moody, Cesar Blanco and Lina Ortega.
In a change from the previously announced list of participants, Mike Cox with the Texas State Rifle Association also was in the room.
Gun-rights advocates were unhappy that one of their representatives was not originally invited, while Ed Scruggs with Texas Gun Sense, which advocates for safety-based limits on guns, was. They were not swayed by assurances from Abbott's office that their perspective would be heard during next week's meeting in El Paso.
Before the meeting, activists with Gun Owners of America — which calls itself a no-compromise gun lobby — rallied on 11th Street just outside the Capitol grounds to warn Abbott and other politicians against actions that would limit access to guns or the right to carry weapons in public.
"We know armed civilians save lives," said Rachel Malone, the organization's Texas director. "The threat is not guns. The threat is not, quote, gun violence. The threat is an evil heart. Any solution that aims to take away more guns from more people is counterproductive."
Stephen Willeford, who shot the gunman who killed 26 people in a Sutherland Springs church in 2017, displayed the AR-15 he used that day — a rifle that he said has been demonized because of its use in mass shootings.
Laws restricting gun ownership, including limits on high-capacity ammunition magazines and the federal ban on rapid-fire rifle attachments known as bump stocks, will not stop criminals from getting weapons, he said.
"We don't want any more restrictions. It does not stop the bad guys," Willeford told about 50 gun-rights activists at the rally.
"Every time something like this happens, politicians tend to go and say, well, we'll give them something and that will (suffice). It never happens. You give them something, they want something else," he said.
Inside the Capitol, representatives from Google, Facebook and Twitter attended Abbott's meeting with members of law enforcement, the FBI, Secret Service, U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the Texas Department of Public Safety's counterterrorism and criminal investigation divisions.
Suggestions from the Capitol and El Paso meetings will help the governor's office prepare an action plan in response to the El Paso shooting, which police have described as a racist attack by a man who traveled cross-state to target Mexicans.
Abbott said additional announcements could come from Patrick and Bonnen on action by the Legislature, but the governor has thus far rejected calls from Democrats to convene a special legislative session on gun violence, saying his office and state agencies have the ability to lead an effective response.
Next week, a separate Abbott-created group — the Domestic Terrorism Task Force — will meet at the Capitol to analyze threats posed by homegrown terrorists and recommend responses. Abbott said the task force, which will meet Aug. 30 and at least quarterly thereafter, will help form his action plan.
A similar round of meetings after a 2018 shooting left 10 dead at Santa Fe High School produced an action plan that focused on school safety.
The El Paso shooting, which police have called a racist act by a gunman who traveled across the state to target Mexicans, will require a different set of responses, Abbott said.
"Our goal isn't to start out with conclusions and try to find facts supporting our conclusions. Our goal is to open up all avenues ... and follow the facts wherever they might lead," he said.
Gun-control measures, however, are not on the table for the state's Republican leadership, including limits on high-capacity magazines and bans on certain types of weapons.