Taxpayer-funded gun locks are free to Texans — unless they have the wrong ‘political agenda’

San Antonio Express-News

By Allie Morris

AUSTIN — Eight years after her son died from an accidental shooting in 2009, Leesa Ross began preaching safe firearm storage at schools around Austin and giving out as many gun locks as she could.

So when Republican Gov. Greg Abbott announced a $1 million grant to flood the state with 625,000 free gun locks after a slew of mass shootings, Ross went to her local police station last year to ask for 100 of them.
They said no.

Behind the scenes, the firearms trade association overseeing the grant advised the Austin Police Department not to give Ross the locks because of her association with a group that advocates gun control, according to emails obtained by Hearst Newspapers.

The National Shooting Sports Foundation, the group that Abbott’s office contracted to distribute the locks, voiced concerns that such association could risk alienating gun owners.
“While I respect her clear commitment to firearms safety,” a consultant for the National Shooting Sports Foundation told an APD officer last September, “her alignment with (NSSF) Project ChildSafe and our locks could cause controversy given her political agenda and alienate gun owners and those with whom we have the most capacity to effect change.”

The exchange reveals how even the most benign gun safety measure — giving out free gun locks to prevent accidental shootings — can get caught in the political crosshairs. And it raises questions about how taxpayer funded services can be steered toward some, but not others, based on their political views.

“Everybody should be able to get these gun locks,” said Ross, who is a board member of Texas Gun Sense and affiliated with Everytown for Gun Safety’s survivor network. Ross said she is also a member of the National Rifle Association. “It’s about saving lives. That is the goal.”

Abbott picked the National Shooting Sports Foundation, which represents firearms manufacturers and has lobbied against gun restrictions, to distribute the cable gun locks free to the public through its long-running Project ChildSafe program. The cables are threaded through a gun’s chamber to prevent it from firing.

A letter obtained by Hearst Newspapers shows NSSF asks its law enforcement partners not to give the gun locks to members of Everytown for Gun Safety and Moms Demand Action, two national groups that advocate stricter firearm laws.

“Everytown for Gun Safety and Moms Demand Action and other groups are funded by individuals who support and advocate for firearms public policy legislation and regulations at both the state and federal levels,” said the letter from September 2019 that was sent to the Austin Police Department. “We have found that their safety events often include calls for political advocacy for gun control.”

Abbott awarded the grant after the shooting at Santa Fe High School in 2018 that officials said was carried out by a teenager using his father’s guns. Last summer, Texas led the nation in the number of unintentional shootings by children, with a majority of them reported in the Houston area, according to a report released in July 2019 by Everytown for Gun Safety.
Abbott’s office did not respond to questions about the memo or whether he agreed with how the NSSF is distributing the cable locks.

NSSF stands by the letter that “requests its law enforcement partners not share Project ChildSafe gun locks with unauthorized groups,” spokesman Bill Brassard said in an email. The “request” is sent to all law enforcement agencies that receive gun locks and safety brochures to hand out to the public, he said.

A Moms Demand Action spokeswoman said everyone should be working together to promote secure gun storage to prevent suicides, school shootings and unintentional shootings by children.

“As a survivor of gun suicide and someone who learned how to shoot a rifle before I learned long division, it’s absurd that anyone would want fewer gun locks in the hands of gun owners,” said Taylor Maxwell, director of communications for Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America. “This is beyond politics — it’s about keeping our kids and families safe.”

Making gun locks accessible is one step state Republican leaders have taken after a series of mass shootings in Santa Fe, Sutherland Springs, El Paso and Midland-Odessa have rocked Texas over the past few years.

Legislators have been reluctant to impose any restrictions on gun ownership and this year passed a new law affirming the right of Texans to carry concealed firearms in schools and places of worship. They also, however, offered up $1 million for a campaign to promote safe gun storage the Texas Department of Public Safety is expected to launch later this year.

The free gun lock program is an initiative launched by Abbott. The $1 million grant is expected to fund roughly 625,000 gun locks and safety brochures, Brassard has said. At least 29 law enforcement agencies have already requested the kits from NSSF to distribute the locks in their cities. It remains to be seen how many will follow the NSSF guidance on how to distribute the gun locks.

The Houston Police Department has received 400 locks from NSSF, but spokesman Kese Smith said he doesn’t know of any restrictions on their distribution. The department has set its own policy to hand out one lock per family, Smith said.

Bexar County recently launched its own effort to make 17,000 gun locks free and available to the public, an effort funded by local government. Danna Halff, a volunteer with Moms Demand Action in San Antonio, said the group has always worked well with local law enforcement agencies.

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“I can’t speak for the whole state, but in Bexar County we are working with our law enforcement and very closely with our sheriff’s office and the county,” Halff said.

NSSF has said the Bexar County Sheriff’s Office requested some of the locks from it, but the office hadn’t received any as of December, spokesman Johnny Garcia told the Express-News then.

The Austin Police Department, meanwhile, has yet to fulfill Ross’s request for 100 gun locks to give away at safety seminars she runs for high school and college students through her organization, Lock Arms for Life, she said. Internal APD emails show a senior police officer sent Ross’ email requesting the locks, which included information about her various titles and affiliations, to an NSSF consultant who then advised against the partnership.

“I don’t think she understands it’s not our policy, but NSSF policy on who we distribute the gun locks to,” an APD community engagement coordinator wrote in an email to others within the department about Ross’ request.

The Austin Police Department has not yet responded to questions about the emails or the number of gun locks they have distributed to date. Anyone doing the work to pass out gun locks in the community should be assisted, Ross said.

“It is our governor giving them money, they cannot dictate the policy to the gun locks,” she said. “Where is this coming from?”