ODESSA, Texas (Nexstar) — Victims of recent Texas shootings and family members of those killed are sharing their personal stories with state lawmakers.
The Senate Select Committee on Mass Violence Prevention and Community Safety held a field hearing in Odessa on Thursday. In August, a gunman killed seven people and wounded 25 others on a shooting spree before law enforcement closed in and killed the suspect. 22 people were killed and 20 were injured in an attack at an El Paso Walmart less than a month prior.
The focus of the hearing was to “learn firsthand, the personal, family, and community impact of mass shootings in Texas by hearing from victims of mass violence in Dallas, Santa Fe, Sutherland Springs, El Paso, and Midland/Odessa.”
“We owe it to the people of Texas to have productive conversations on these very critical issues,” State Sen. Joan Huffman, who chairs the committee, said in her opening statement.
Carla Byrne’s brother Joe Griffith was killed in the Odessa shooting spree.
“Stopped at a red light, he was murdered with an AR-15,” she said.
“One minute this family, this beautiful innocent family, was enjoying a Saturday afternoon, the next minute they were living in a virtual war zone — our whole town became a war zone,” she said.
In her tearful testimony, she told lawmakers she wanted to see stronger background checks during gun sales. The suspected gunman is believed to have purchased his weapon in a private sale, which does not require a background check.
As she completed her remarks, she asked the senators:
“If we can prevent even one more child from being murdered, if we can prevent one more father from not being murdered in front of his children, if we can prevent one more mother and father from burying their child, if we can prevent one more daughter from rolling up to her brother’s grave site to see her mother on her hands and knees digging in the mud so that her dead son might have flowers on her grave, isn’t this worth all of our efforts?”
Her comments drew an emotional response from Huffman, addressing the people who had testified.
“We feel for all of your perspectives and you’re right — it is our job and shame on us if we don’t do something,” she said as tears filled her eyes.
Others worried legislative action would infringe upon their Second Amendment rights.
“Don’t take away my right to defend myself,” Wallace Dunn, vice president of the Texas Handgun Association, told lawmakers.
The differing opinions and charged testimony launched the hearing into a six-hour marathon.
Following the incidents in West Texas, the state’s House Speaker Dennis Bonnen and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick announced the formation of a committee in each chamber in order to address mass violence prevention and community safety. Gov. Greg Abbott also created a domestic terrorism task force and the Texas Safety Commission to bring community members, lawmakers and security experts together to identify ways to better protect Texans.
The committee is also tasked with looking into the roles social media and guns play in public safety.
Midland County District Attorney Laura Nodolf said law enforcement officers at the local and regional levels must work to improve inter-agency dialogue, and increase communication with health entities. She suggested including limited mental health information in the systems officers use to run licenses, so they know more about the person they are interacting with.
“[Officers] need fast info to make fast decisions,” she said.
“People want HIPAA protection,” she said, referring to the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996, the federal law designed to protect sensitive health information from disclosure without knowledge or consent of the patient.
“HIPAA has the legitimate law enforcement exception for a reason,” she explained. “We have become too afraid to legitimize the law enforcement exception.
“We as Texans all recognize we don’t want another El Paso, we don’t want another Santa Fe, we don’t want another Odessa/Midland and I think everyone is dedicated to doing everything we can,” Nodolf said.
State Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, said it was time for local and state leaders to find solutions to community safety rather than come up with more excuses and loopholes.
“We can’t keep finding an excuse for why a guy can be dangerous if we ever were able to have the court take his guns away, cause he’s gonna go home and get his gun or get the stolen gun and on and on and on,” Whitmire said.
“If we just want to find excuses then we are never going to get to where we need to be because excuses are unlimited,” he continued.
The Senate panel’s next hearing is scheduled for Monday in El Paso.
Santos Gonzalez contributed to this report.