As he watched a couple load ice chests into their car at a gas station, something didn’t sit right with Roland Gutierrez. The pair were likely on their way to the lake to enjoy the late May sunshine in San Antonio—a normal way to spend the day, he knew. But Gutierrez, the state senator for District 19, couldn’t help thinking how surreal it is that life continues after a tragedy. He was on his way to Uvalde just days after an 18-year-old had opened fire on a classroom at Robb Elementary School, killing 19 students and two teachers.
“I was thinking how sad it is that … we move on with our lives,” Gutierrez said when we met at his San Antonio law office in September. “It’s not an unnatural thing. I get it. When these things happen, we always say, ‘Oh, it’s just too bad. I feel so sorry for those people.’”
Gutierrez represents a massive district that stretches from his hometown of San Antonio west to Big Bend National Park, encompassing a broad swath of southwest Texas, including Uvalde. The Democrat is relatively new to the Texas Senate, taking office in January 2021. His campaign had promised certain priorities: to push for legalized marijuana, to bolster mental health resources for rural Texans, and to improve public schools. Although he hasn’t dropped these issues, nearly all of his public appearances since May have been about Uvalde.
The shooting “changed me for sure,” Gutierrez said. “I won’t be a singular-issue public servant, but it has become a very, very big issue in my life and in the lives of these new friends that I’ve made. … For these parents … there’s no issue out there that matters if you don’t have your kid.”
Gutierrez, a father of two girls aged 15 and 13, has emerged as one of the most vocal lawmakers in the shooting’s aftermath. He called for accountability from the agencies that responded to the killings, appealed to Governor Greg Abbott to call a special session on gun laws, and sued the Texas Department of Public Safety and its powerful chief Steve McCraw to try and force the release of more records about the massacre. The state police agency’s response to the Uvalde shooting only deepened his concern. He’s been skeptical of DPS ever since the launch of the “bullshit propaganda machine for Greg Abbott” that is Operation Lone Star, the multi-billion-dollar border security initiative in which state troopers play a starring role.
Gutierrez attended as many funerals for Uvalde schoolchildren as he could, determined to bear witness even as the world began to move on. “I did it because I felt for these people, and I felt like I needed to be there,” he said. “But I also felt like I needed to talk about it to my colleagues, so that they never allow this to happen in their own communities.”
Gutierrez has positioned himself as the anti-Abbott, pointedly criticizing the governor’s past responses—or lack thereof—to mass shootings, including those in El Paso and Santa Fe, which claimed the lives of 23 and 10 people, respectively. “You don’t just sweep into a community in a disaster like this and go pray with them one day and leave,” Gutierrez said. “That’s not what a leader does. It’s not what a governor should do.” He told the Texas Tribune that Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick’s failure to include him on the Senate Special Committee to Protect All Texans was a “slap in the face.” Patrick mostly appointed his conservative allies, and only a few members whose districts have been affected by gun violence.
Gutierrez’s political career in South Texas spans decades. He cut his teeth as a member of the San Antonio City Council from 2005 to 2008. Then he moved up the ladder to the Texas House of Representatives, where he served six terms before ascending to the Texas Senate.
District 19, anchored by San Antonio, has historically supported Democratic candidates. But that support faltered after former state Senator Carlos Uresti was sentenced to 12 years in prison for fraud and bribery. Gutierrez ran for the seat but lost in a three-way special election, ultimately won by Republican Pete Flores. Gutierrez tried again in 2020, this time narrowly ousting Flores.
Gutierrez may be a big-city Democrat, but that hasn’t stopped him from teaming up with conservative leaders in small-town Uvalde who share his outrage at state leaders’ response to the shooting. One of his main allies is Uvalde Mayor Don McLaughlin, a boisterous right-winger, previously best known for his appearances on Fox News railing against Democrats’ border policies. The pair has jointly raised hell about delays in victim compensation and the stark lack of transparency from Abbott and Uvalde County District Attorney Christina Mitchell Busbee as investigations into the shooting got underway.
McLaughlin said that when Gutierrez first came to Uvalde, they got on the same page about shared support for stricter background checks for gun purchases and raising the age requirement for assault-style rifles from 18 to 21.
“We’ve got to be willing to negotiate,” McLaughlin said. “We both want the same thing: We want answers for these families. … It’s gonna take time, but we’re going to get it.”
Gutierrez is up for re-election in November. But he isn’t focusing his efforts on Republican challenger Robert Garza. The race is widely considered not competitive—the seat was made bluer in redistricting, and Garza’s campaign budget is relatively small. Instead, Gutierrez continues to speak out against high-level Republican leaders whom he calls his real political opposition. “For the last 20-plus years, Texas has really just been regressing as people spew hate, spew division … solely so they can stay in power. And they’ve convinced a bunch of rural Texans that they’re for them. And they don’t do one damn thing for rural Texas.”
If re-elected, Gutierrez said, he’ll go into the 2023 legislative session with a no-excuses plan: force the issue on gun reform. He plans to spearhead legislation on age increases for gun purchases, expanded background checks, and red flag laws. If that doesn’t work, he said he’ll force debate by offering gun control measures as amendments on all sorts of other priority legislation.
“If they don’t want to talk about guns, and they don’t want to talk about gun violence in this state, well, I’m going to be talking about it,” Gutierrez said. “We’ll have Uvalde families in there. … As far as I can see, those families aren’t going to stop, nor should they.”