Texas Gun Sense: Firearms Policy and Advocacy in the Wild West

John Woods

John Woods is being honored as a Gun Violence Prevention Champion of Change.

Prior to April 16, 2007, gun violence was—for me—something that happened on the pages of a newspaper or behind the television screen. That Monday morning, however, I discovered first-hand the cost of America’s moral failure on firearms policy. I lost Maxine Turner, the girl I loved.

I moved to Austin a handful of weeks later to begin a biology doctoral program. My involvement with the gun violence prevention movement began when lawmakers started discussing how to “prevent another Virginia Tech,” which they argued was best accomplished by forcing colleges to allow guns in classrooms—an ideological agenda having nothing to do with campus safety.

Scientists love to believe that people make decisions rationally—that 32 innocent people dying in an act of terrorism should be sufficient justification for significant reform, particularly when there is so little downside to something as simple as expanding background checks.

Unfortunately, rational decision-making is rarely a part of the gun debate in America. Texas lawmakers had no interest in talking to the Virginia Tech survivors, nor in reading the VT Review Panel Report, nor in learning that workplaces allowing firearms are 5–7 times more likely to experience homicides.

Indeed, the gun debate in Texas has been filled with manufactured misinformation. The NRA has done an admirable job, for example, of supplying the public with an alternate history—that the University of Texas shooting was mitigated by armed civilians. Survivors and law enforcement remember it quite differently: armed civilians needlessly complicated the police response.

We founded Texas Gun Sense to counter gun lobby disinformation with an objective, fact-based perspective. After the inconceivable events at Sandy Hook, America seemed ready to talk about guns again; and we knew already that Texas was prepared, its legislature having twice rejected the “campus carry” bills—which many observers viewed as sure to pass in an overwhelmingly conservative Texas legislature.

Like Texas Gun Sense, the vast majority of Texans support the right to bear arms but also—perhaps contrary to stereotypes—believe that with rights come responsibilities. So it is unsurprising that the term “gun sense” was invented in Texas by Texans. We want what nearly every other American wants: the freedom to live and raise our families in safety.

Texas Gun Sense has already found some success pursuing a fact-based dialogue. In February, the Travis County commissioners voted against renewing gun show contracts for county property absent guarantees of background checks on private sales. Organizers successfully defeated the guns-in-classrooms legislation for the third session in a row using white papers we prepared. We offered Texas a trustworthy source of information on firearms policy for the first time in years.

Texas has a history of good gun sense, a legacy which Texas Gun Sense hopes to solidify. In 1994, when it was still legal for domestic violence offenders to purchase firearms, a local constable suggested that Austin Police Department simply fax relevant arrest records to any gun dealer requesting a background check. It worked, and a short time later the legislature codified such offenders as prohibited purchasers—long before it became federal law. By 2009, Texas had closed the mental health reporting loophole which enabled Maxine’s killer to buy his firearms—under unanimous consent and signed by Governor Perry.

What we do in Texas has broader implications—36 Congressional seats and several native sons in the White House. Many federal officeholders spend time in the legislature—where we are on the front lines, discussing universal background checks. The work Texas Gun Sense does has national impact, and on everyone's behalf, I thank the White House for the recognition.

John Woods, Ph.D., graduated from Virginia Tech and helped found Texas Gun Sense, a state-focused educational charity which promotes a fact-based dialogue on gun policy and works to educate lawmakers and the public on universal background checks in Texas. Dr. Woods now serves on Texas Gun Sense’s advisory board and is a post-doctoral fellow at West Virginia University’s Applied Space Exploration Laboratory and the West Virginia Robotic Technology Center.

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