In a familiar 3-2 party-line vote, the Harris County Commissioners Court passed a resolution on Tuesday calling for legislation requiring universal background checks.
While the resolution has no binding statutory effect on state or federal law, the motion put on full display the positions of elected officials in Texas’ most populous county and the third most populous county in the United States.
Requested by Commissioner Adrian Garcia (D-Precinct 2), the resolution expresses “support for legislation requiring universal background checks for all gun sales in the State of Texas, including those that do not involve a licensed gun dealer, as well as stranger-to-stranger gun sales.”
In presenting the resolution, Garcia specifically referred to Texas Lt. Governor Dan Patrick and his call for consideration of expanded background checks in the aftermath of the El Paso and Odessa shootings.
“I applaud Lt. Governor Dan Patrick’s efforts particularly on this important issue that’s confronting many if not all, American communities,” said Garcia. “This resolution is to give support to Lt. Governor Dan Patrick to have the kind of leadership that we really need to see more often.”
Garcia’s resolution cites statistics of firearm-related deaths and drew support from gun control advocacy groups such as Moms Demand Action.
Two people spoke in favor of the resolution.
A representative from Moms Demand Action said polling shows 80 percent of Texans favor universal background checks and that states with such policies have seen a decline in incidents of gun violence.
A recent study by the Rand Corporation, however, found little evidence that background checks reduce violent crime. More specifically, the report suggested that the effect of private-seller background checks on violence reduction, as proposed in the Harris County resolution, is inconclusive at best.
Chris Watt who ran as a Democrat for Texas House District 148 said “without exception” everyone he’d spoken to on the campaign trail supported the expanded checks.
Thirteen people spoke against the resolution, including Keli Chevalier, an army veteran who served 20 years and 3 combat tours. Chevalier said she saw citizens in other countries who were already disarmed and unable to defend themselves against terrorists.
“When I came home after my last tour to my three boys at home, I felt safe knowing I knew how to use my own guns,” said Chevalier.
“Although I’m retired, I’m standing here today to continue to fight for the same Constitution that I fought for the last twenty years. And I would hope and pray that you would do the same.”
Others testifying against the resolution noted that existing gun laws are not being enforced, and that applicants who lie on currently required background checks are rarely prosecuted.
Former South Houston police chief and municipal judge R. J. Boatman said universal background checks target law-abiding citizens, and he urged the court to only seek legislation that targets offenders.
In explaining his opposition to the resolution, Commissioner Jack Cagle (R-Precinct 4) noted that his office had received 395 communications against and only 11 in favor.
“I personally believe that we need to be pursuing criminals, not law-abiding citizens.” Cagle added, “I do not believe this resolution honors the second amendment.”
Also voting no, Commissioner Steve Radack (R-Precinct 3) pointed out that gun-related legislation fell under the jurisdiction of the state and federal government.
“We’re a subdivision of the state of Texas, we get to do what they give us permission to do,” said Radack. “This is not an issue for the Harris County Commissioners Court… I’ll be voting against it.”
In addition to the resolution calling for universal background checks, commissioners also voted 3-2 to provide funding for the expansion of the “Safe Surrender” program. Already operating in one family court, the program will now be expanded to the county’s 22 felony courts.
Safe Surrender allows those charged with domestic violence or under protective orders to turn over firearms to the Sheriff’s office for temporary storage, and yesterday’s vote included $247,000 to cover costs in FY 2021.
Commissioner Cagle, who along with Commissioner Radack, had voted for the initial expansion request on October 29, asked for confirmation that the program was completely voluntary.
First Assistant County Attorney Robert Soard said while it had been represented to him as a ”purely voluntary program,” he had not personally verified the voluntary aspect and could not confirm.
Cagle said without confirmation that Safe Surrender would be completely voluntary, he could not vote for it.
“Judge, I’m in favor of a voluntary program; I’m not in favor of a mandatory program.”
Despite Cagle’s expressed concerns, Commissioner Rodney Ellis (D-Precinct 1) motioned to move ahead with the vote.
“If somebody throws up the Second Amendment on everything on here, and somebody gets afraid because somebody decided it’s the Second Amendment- we just don’t know! It’s okay,” said Ellis.
Holly Hansen is a freelance writer living in Cypress, Texas. Her former column, “All In Perspective” ran in The Georgetown Advocate, Jarrell Star Ledger, and The Hill Country News, and she has contributed to a variety of Texas digital media outlets. She graduated summa cum laude from the University of Central Florida with a degree in History, and in addition to writing about politics and policy, also writes about faith and culture.