UVALDE, TX — Congressman Tony Gonzales represents Congressional District 23, an oddly-shaped district that spans from the urban edges of San Antonio through rural southwest Texas to the urban outskirts of El Paso. CD-23 also contains the city of Uvalde where the horrific school massacre by a crazed boy with a semiautomatic rifle killed 19 children and two adult teachers in an elementary school on May 24.
As is expected in the days following a tragedy, calls for more gun laws erupted in Washington. Gonzales, a Republican and ex-Navy intelligence corpsman, was forced to decide how to react.
This past week, had Gonzales voted against the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act, billed as a safety measure to address gun violence, rank-and-file CD-23 constituents who experienced the up close horror of the Uvalde shooting might wonder why their congressman would not do anything to try to prevent another school shooting.
There is more to consider about the makeup of the Texas congressional district that sits along the longest stretch of the U.S.-Mexico border of any political subdivision in the U.S.
The 2022 election numbers in CD-23 tell a story of a congressional district where the moderates in the middle call the shots. During the 2022 primary elections, Gonzales handily won the Republican Primary Election on March 1 with 22,697 votes, or 78.7% of the 28,832 total Republican votes cast. His challenge will be November 8 when he faces Democrat John Lira. Lira won 20,129 votes, or 56.1% of the 35,893 Democrat votes cast in the Democrat Party Primary. In CD-23, Democrats have a 7,061 vote advantage. To win on November 8, Gonzales cannot position himself as a fire-breathing right-wing Republican who is an absolutist on gun rights and the Second Amendment.
On the other hand, for voting in favor of the legislation, Gonzales has been called a Republican In Name Only, or RINO, and compared to Senator John Cornyn who was a lead negotiator for the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act that was signed into law on Saturday by President Joe Biden. We examined Cornyn’s situation in The Sins of Senator Cornyn earlier this week.
Facing the political challenges CD-23 offers, Gonzales’ chosen political strategy was to be pragmatic rather than ideological.
“I was never an automatic ‘yes’ for gun control legislation,” Gonzales explained in an exclusive interview Saturday afternoon. He said a few very bad gun control bills were presented for a vote in the House immediately following the Uvalde tragedy.
“I voted ‘no’ on those Democrat bills,” he said.
He said he worked hand-in-hand with several gun lobby groups and firearm manufacturers to make sure the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act didn’t diminish the Second Amendment and did not encroach on due process. He said he believes the law accomplishes this and at the same time will stop the next Uvalde. Gonzales said his ultimate goal, if Congress was to pass sweeping gun control legislation, was to insure the legislation was effective.
As a personal test each step of the way as the legislation was marked up, Gonzales said he continuously asked himself, “Would this have prevented the massacre in Uvalde?”
“I know the bill would have,” Gonzales said. “The guy (the 18-year-old gunman) was crazy. He had severe mental problems as a juvenile.”
The law will address ways to enforce firearm confiscation and the forbid the right to purchase firearms by those deemed a threat to themselves or others by incentivizing states to enact Red Flag Laws.
“I don’t believe in all of this Red Flag stuff, but at the same time, I have firearms vendors in my district who tell me that they don’t want to be selling firearms to the mentally unstable,” Gonzales said.
The Red Flag provisions in the law are what has brought the most scorn from the conservative press. For Gonzales the tradeoff in the compromise with the Democrats — minimal Red Flag provisions traded for more ways to address mental health — was worth it.
“There is $11 billion in that law that will be granted to the states to combat the mental health crisis,” Gonzales said. He noted that in CD-23 there are zero beds available to treat the mentally ill in lieu of outright jailing them in the rural Texas county jails. “In a state of 30 million people, we have maybe 1,000 beds for the mentally ill.”
“Lets bring a lot of that money back to Texas and work towards fixing this problem,” Gonzales said.