Discovering Texas: From guns to immigration, here’s how one state’s challenges echo those of the country

HOUSTON — Thirteen people killed in two mass shootings. Eight immigrants are killed when a van crashes into a crowded bus stop. The likely passage of legislation that would allow the Republican governor to nullify an election in the most populous county, a Democratic stronghold. All in the last two weeks.

These issues and the forces behind them—anger and guns, immigration turmoil, deep political divisions over what democracy means—play out in American life in a variety of ways. But in Texas, with its immense size and a population growing by more than 1,000 people a day, the stage is much bigger and often noisier.

It’s enough to make even the proudest Texan wrestle with how he views the state.

“This is out of control right now,” said Jay Leeson, an illustrator and cartoonist who lives in Lubbock, a city in the Texas High Plains. He describes himself as a “West Texas conservative” whose children “know how to handle guns, know how to ride a horse, know how to do all the Texas things.”

The “Texas stuff”. Texans have heard all this before. They have been listening to it for generations. Everyone be armed. Which is a wildly conservative place full of oil thugs, cowboys and brazen braggarts. Which is nothing like the rest of the country, really.

Many Texans will tell you that there is some truth to this. But Texas is also much more nuanced than a collection of clichés that view the state through the narrower lens.

Lately though, things here have felt unforgiving. And what worries some Texans is not how outsiders view the state, but whether those who live here can navigate the divisive political climate and overcome a complicated and sometimes violent past.


Leeson is furious at how immigration has become a political battleground. He is furious at how Republicans are “pulling as many votes as they can out of West Texas” to beat burgeoning populations in the state’s heavily Democratic urban centers, from Houston to Dallas, from Austin to San Antonio. The Texas Legislature is currently debating several bills that focus on how Democratic Harris County, the most populous in the state, conducts its elections.

He is especially furious because his 9-year-old son is so worried about school shootings that he checked all the windows in his classroom to see which one would open in the event of an attack.

“I just think it’s all a fucking mess,” Leeson said.

Mass murder has a deep history in Texas. Arguably the first modern American mass shooting occurred here in 1966, when an engineering student opened fire from the observation deck of a building at the University of Texas. He killed 14 people and injured dozens more.

But the state’s strict gun laws didn’t begin to crack until a few years after another mass shooting, this one in 1991, when a gunman drove his pickup truck through the window of a diner in central Texas, killing 23 people. . By then, decades of Democratic control were giving way to Republicans who saw the right to bear arms as a key issue.

In 1995, the then Gov. George W. Bush signed legislation allowing Texans to carry concealed weapons. Today, Texans can openly carry weapons. Some do it, passionately.

Chad Hasty, a well-known Lubbock-based conservative radio host, laments the latest killings: “I don’t want to get to a time where we’re not shocked by a mass shooting,” but insists that gun rights be protected. He rarely leaves home without his Sig Sauer P365, a small firearm designed for everyday carry and one of the best-selling pistols in America.

He dismisses the idea that Texas is particularly prone to violence.

“I don’t see it as something unique to Texas,” he said. Instead, the number of mass shootings is simply a matter of size: “We are a huge state: millions and millions of people.”


The litany of Texas mass murders in recent years is staggering: Sutherland Springs, 26 dead in 2017; Santa Fe, 10 deaths in 2018; El Paso, 23 dead in 2019; Midland-Odessa, seven dead in 2019; Uvalde, 21 dead in 2022; Cleveland, five dead on April 28; Allen, eight dead on May 6.

Guns have long been a part of Texas culture, both in the state’s mythology and in reality. But equating the number of guns with the number of people killed by firearms seems to some to be a false equivalence.

“You will never get people to give up their guns, nor do I think you should,” said Vanessa Brashier, publisher and publisher of Bluebonnet News, a site that covers rural areas north of Houston, including the city of Cleveland, where five immigrants were killed in a mass shooting on April 28.

She was deeply moved by the killings, particularly how some of the women died protecting their children from being shot. But she considers herself a Second Amendment supporter: “I want to be able to defend myself if someone calls and they shouldn’t be on my property.”

Like so many things in Texas, its politics are complex. Calling himself politically independent, Brashier sees immigration as a good thing: “I think we need to find a better way to do it.”

Just two weeks ago, he created a Spanish-language news site to better inform the area’s growing Latino population. She called the site “El Amanecer Texas” or Texas Sunrise, “because she wanted it to be hopeful.”

“These residents who have moved here deserve to be informed about what is going on around them,” he said. But the influx of immigrants has met with backlash from some residents, who feel “like there’s been an invasion,” Brashier said.

This week, Texas and other border states were preparing for the end of a policy that allowed the government to quickly expel migrants to Mexico. Governor Greg Abbott has deployed additional Texas National Guard troops in response to the end of the rule. The goal, Abbott said this week: “secure the Texas border.”

Texas border cities have tended to be more welcoming to immigrants than other parts of the state, as many in these areas have seen themselves and their Mexican neighbors as one large mixed community that transcends the political boundaries of governments. In El Paso, for example, more than 80 percent of the nearly 700,000 residents are Latino. Many residents have family across the border in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico.

This situation at the border has created a welcoming community that reacts differently to various issues, including immigration, said Richard Pineda, director of the Sam Donaldson Center for Communication Studies at the University of Texas at El Paso. For Texas, he says, it’s an outlier: a “fluid culture that comes and goes.”


Texas can feel like a study in contrasts. Famous for its oil industry, but a producer of a quarter of the country’s wind energy and a leader in solar energy. Known for its open and undeveloped landscapes, yet home to some of the largest and fastest growing cities on earth. Represented by the cowboy, but with some of the largest immigrant populations in the United States.

With over 30 million people, Texas has long been a destination for foreigners from other US states and abroad. Since 2010, it has gained nearly 4 million residents, more than any other state, according to US Census figures. In 2020, Latino residents accounted for half of the population growth, and many demographers believe that Latinos will soon overtake whites. as the largest ethnic group in the state.

But it’s not just Latinos. Texas has a large population of immigrants from India, China, the Philippines, Vietnam, and elsewhere. Allen, where a gunman killed eight people at a shopping center on May 6, is among the most diverse suburbs in the Dallas-Fort Worth area.

For nearly a century, Texas has had a one-word state motto: “Friendship.” But many see that loose connection is changing.

“I always thought of Texas as a friendly place. But to be honest, this past decade, it feels crueler,” said Chris Tomlinson, a fifth-generation Texan and business columnist for the Houston Chronicle. He has written two best-sellers on Texas history, including “Forget the Alamo: The Rise and Fall of an American Myth.”

Tomlinson points out that more than 70 percent of Texans age 60 and older are non-Hispanic white, while more than 70 percent of Texans under age 30 are people of color.

“That creates the tension that you see around voting rights and cultural issues, like critical race theory and LGBTQ issues,” he said. “When you have that level of demographic change, there’s going to be tension.”

Texas is among the states, for example, where right-wing activists and politicians have attacked drag shows, and Republican lawmakers have proposed restrictions on the shows.

Sometimes it can seem like the population of Texas is changing faster on many issues than the politics of the state, which remains solidly conservative and Republican. A Democrat hasn’t been elected to state office since 1994. Still, Tomlinson points out that polls show Texans aren’t all that different from the rest of the country when it comes to everything from abortion to immigration.

Then there are the guns, a reputation that, for better or worse, follows Texas everywhere. A poll conducted last year by the University of Houston and the University of Texas Southern showed “overwhelming support” for at least some level of gun control. Yet few expect to see that in Texas anytime soon.

Gary Mauro, a longtime commissioner of the Texas Land Bureau who ran for governor in 1998, is one of those last state Democrats. Although he reserves most of his criticism for the Republicans, he blames extremists in both parties for focusing on the political margins and amplifying some of the clichés Texas continues to wrestle with.

“I still think it’s going to get better,” he said of Texas politics. “And it keeps getting worse.”


Juan A. Lozano, a Houston-based Associated Press journalist, has been covering Texas since 1994. Tim Sullivan, an AP national writer, reported from Minneapolis. Follow Lozano on Twitter at and Sullivan at

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