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After it fell in the Texas House, the Senate on Tuesday revived legislation mandating minimum sentences of 10 years for people who use firearms while committing certain felonies.
State Sen. Joan Huffman’s Senate Bill 23 was a priority bill for Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick this legislative session, but it died in the House on Saturday after failing to move out of committee before a key deadline. Not to be deterred, senators in the State Affairs Committee resuscitated the proposal by adding the entirety of Huffman’s mandatory minimum legislation to a related House bill.
House Bill 4843, as passed by the House, simply raised the penalty for unlawful possession of a firearm by a person convicted of a felony from a third-degree to second-degree felony. The punishment for the crime would change from a maximum of 10 years in prison to 20 years. As passed by the Senate on Tuesday, however, the bill would both raise the unlawful possession penalty and include the mandatory sentencing language of SB 23.
“This bill would allow Texas to take a stand against the illegal use of firearms in the commission of certain violent offenses, and I’d like to thank the lieutenant governor for making this a priority,” Huffman, R-Houston, said on the floor, before senators unanimously approved the bill.
The new version of HB 4843 will now go back to the House, where lawmakers can either accept the swap or go to a conference committee, where a few members from each chamber will work to come up with a compromise before final legislative deadlines this weekend.
The Senate’s gun bill would require judges to sentence people found to have used a firearm while committing serious felonies to serve a mandatory 10 years in prison or on probation. Only juries could allow the 10 years to be served through probation, and those imprisoned could not be released on parole before serving a decade in prison.
During a Senate committee hearing in March for SB 23, Huffman said the bill stemmed from a surge in violent gun-related crimes across the state since 2019.
“Mandatory sentences act as a potential deterrent for anyone considering illegally using a firearm and are a tool for prosecutors to keep violent criminals off the street,” Huffman told lawmakers on the Senate State Affairs Committee.
Criminal justice research has shown that mandatory minimums do not reduce crime. Experts have theorized the increase in crimes since 2019, which occurred in both urban and nonurban areas across the country, was caused by a series of variables, including the mental health impact of lockdowns during the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic and a rise in the number of guns on the streets. Homicides surged even as other crimes decreased, but the homicide rate still remained lower than highs seen in the 1990s.
The bill drew an unlikely pairing of opposition from criminal justice reform advocates and some gun rights groups. Criminal justice reform advocates see the idea as a regression to tough-on-crime policies from the war on drugs, while pro-gun advocates fear gun owners could end up facing 10 years in prison for using their gun in self-defense.
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