3 years later, El Paso shooting impact seen in Presidio County politics

PRESIDIO COUNTY — Last week, West Texas passed a somber anniversary. On August 3, three years had passed since a shooting at an El Paso WalMart that claimed the lives of 23 people. The trial for the shooter, who faces 90 charges including hate crimes, has not yet begun and could be delayed until 2025

Most Presidio County residents have some kind of relationship to El Paso as the place they do their shopping or hop on a flight, or a place to visit friends and family. For Marfa native L.H., it was her first taste of freedom after graduating from Marfa High School — she got an apartment and enrolled in a local college. “It was that stepping stone for me living on my own,” she said. 

L.H. asked to be identified only by her initials because she hadn’t yet told everyone in her close-knit family about her experiences the day of the shooting. On August 3, 2019,  she was back home in Marfa, working back-of-house at a local restaurant. She called into work to go spend time with family in the big city. As she got close to her family’s neighborhood, notifications started popping up: there was an active shooter in the Cielo Vista Walmart. 

She knew that her aunt liked hopping the bus at the Cielo Vista Mall on Saturday mornings to go downtown — her stop was just around the corner from the Walmart. “It scared the hell out of me, I couldn’t get a hold of her on my device,” L.H. said. “I kept messaging her and my cousins and — nothing. I was like, let me go see if I can find her.” 

It was early in the tragic events of that morning: local media hadn’t yet started staging on the scene, but eyewitnesses were sharing reports on social media. Just as L.H. reached the bus stop, she got a message from her cousin that her aunt had already been picked up. It was at that moment she looked over her shoulder to the Walmart to see people fleeing the store. “I had clearly just missed something really bad,” she said. “It looked like a bunch of ants running.” 

A week later, at a memorial service for victims of the shooting, an Australian television crew approached L.H. and asked if she’d like to be on TV — 8,000 miles away. Instead of asking about her personal connection to the city and the tragic events that had just unfolded, the news anchor asked how she felt about then President Donald Trump coming to town. 

L.H. kept it cool on the recording, but inside, she was angry. “It pissed me off because they were already reducing it to politics,” she said. “It already was a racist attack. It was really touchy, it really was not the time.”

The gunman used blatantly racist language to explain his actions, saying that he was responding to a perceived “Hispanic invasion of Texas.”  In the years since, the shooting has become a flash point that has changed a lot of local politicians’ views, especially regarding issues of gun control and anti-Mexican racism. 

On the state level, State Senator Cesar Blanco, who represents the Big Bend region, has been using the El Paso shooting — and the more recent shooting at a school in Uvalde — as a moment to advocate for gun reform. Last session, Blanco passed SB162, which makes it a state crime to lie on a background check form when purchasing a firearm. “It’s a step in the right direction, but we still have plenty of work to do to prevent another tragedy. I will continue to honor the victims and survivors of August 3, 2019 with action to end gun violence and hate that plagues our nation,” he wrote in a press release. 

The shooting has also made its mark on Presidio County politics. At a commissioners court meeting on July 28, Commissioner Brenda Silva Bentley invoked the El Paso shooting to explain why she was uncomfortable with the language of a declaration of “invasion” issued by County Judge Cinderela Guevara, noting it echoed the word choice used by the El Paso gunman. (Judge Guevara did not return requests for comment on the matter).

Just two weeks before the shooting, Commissioner Bentley had voted in favor of a measure to make Presidio County a “Second Amendment Sanctuary.” The resolution was intended by gun advocates as a play on “sanctuary cities,” in which local law enforcement are not required to enforce federal immigration law. In the event that the federal government handed down gun control measures, Presidio County law enforcement would not be expected to follow suit. 

At the meeting on July 28, Bentley told the other commissioners how much she wished she could take that vote back. “It’s the one thing I’ve done here I really regret,” she said. “I cried for days [after the shooting] because we had just passed that Second Amendment Sanctuary.” 

Bentley did not return requests for additional comment.

But Precinct 4 commissioner candidate David Beebe, who was justice of the peace at the time, said the measure had ultimately been symbolic, carrying no real legal weight. Now that he’s running against Buddy Knight — who introduced the measure — lots of people have asked him if he will work to appeal the Second Amendment Sanctuary resolution. “It’s a box of air,” Beebe said. “This is not a battle I’m going to pick because there’s nothing there.” 

Despite their difference of opinion on the sanctuary laws, Beebe agreed with Bentley that the “invasion” rhetoric invoked by Judge Guevara’s disaster declaration was dangerous. “At the time, I can tell you that a commissioners court was really despondent about the El Paso shooting. It was taken very seriously by Judge Guevara and every single commissioner,” he said. “Fast forward three years, and we’re going to use the same language and give ourselves emergency powers and celebrate it? Optics and language matter.”

On the law enforcement side of the issue, Marfa Police Chief Steven Marquez passed the third anniversary of the El Paso shooting preparing for an active shooter training at Marfa ISD. Marquez said that mass shootings have made a massive impact in his line of work. “Since Columbine, that’s when it started to evolve,” he said, referring to the Colorado school shooting in 1999 that claimed the lives of 15 people. “Since then, we’ve had multiple other shootings, and it’s become a big priority that law enforcement has had to prepare for.” 

In the nearly 10 years that Marquez has been an officer, he has also seen changes in gun policy. In 2016, the Texas Legislature passed a law allowing open carry of firearms; in 2021, that law expanded to roll back most permitting restrictions. “We do have situations where we’ll have an individual that might not be of sound mind and there’s a firearm in the house,” he said. 

As a father, it’s important to Marquez to keep an open line of communication with parents about his department’s ability to handle active shooter situations. “Growing up, I never went to school thinking that I would get shot at or not come home,” he said. “Our kids didn’t ask for this. Unfortunately, it’s the reality we live in now. All we can do is prepare for it.”