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When Houston Police Chief Troy Finner took questions Monday from the media about the Lakewood Church shooting, one of the first lines of inquiry involved whether the assailant — who had an arrest record and documented history of mental illness — was legally allowed to have a gun.

Finner said police and the FBI were still examining the circumstances surrounding 36-year-old Genesse Moreno obtaining two rifles and using one of them to open fire at the church Sunday.

However, court records and police statements made to date suggest Moreno legally obtained the AR-15 style rifle she fired in the hallway of Texas’ largest megachurch, along with the .22-caliber rifle she had in a backpack. Authorities said Moreno bought the AR-15 rifle in December.

Still, in the wake of the shooting that left Moreno’s 7-year-old son critically injured and a 57-year-old man shot in the hip, questions have been raised about whether more stringent gun laws could have prevented Moreno from getting weapons.

Here’s a rundown of federal and Texas gun laws, along with how they might have applied to Moreno.

Can people convicted of crimes own and carry a gun?

Federal law prohibits those convicted of a crime punishable by imprisonment for longer than a year — commonly known as a felony — from possessing a firearm. Federal law contains several other crime-related restrictions on gun possession, such as bans for people with a domestic violence restraining order or those “committed to any mental institution.”

However, some states have passed laws that allow people convicted of a felony to own a gun. In Texas, those people can possess a firearm in their home beginning five years after their release from confinement or parole. The same timeline applies to those convicted of certain domestic violence misdemeanors.

Federal prosecutors could charge people convicted of felonies with gun ownership, but the vast majority of gun possession cases are prosecuted by state officials, who must follow the Texas law.

In Moreno’s case, she had several arrests and convictions on misdemeanor charges. However, she had no felony convictions, and authorities have released no information showing that her misdemeanor convictions would have prevented her from owning a gun under state or federal law.

Supporters of Texas’ firearms laws argue they protect the Second Amendment rights of residents, while gun-safety groups say state law falls short. For example, Texas’ prohibition on firearms does not apply to people convicted of assaulting their current or former dating partner unless they had been married to or lived with the partner, according to Giffords Law Center.

When a judge orders someone to receive mental health treatment at a hospital or residential facility, county and district clerks are required by Texas law to pass that information along to the state Department of Public Safety.

The agency then sends those records to the FBI’s National Instant Criminal Background Check System, known as NICS. Federally licensed dealers must check the system before they sell someone a firearm.

But private sellers who are not licensed dealers are not required to check the database — a fact commonly referred to as the “gun- show loophole.”

Houston police leaders said Moreno had a documented history of mental illness, and their officers put Moreno under an emergency detention order in 2016. The move allows police to temporarily detain a person experiencing a severe mental health crisis, without arresting or charging them with a crime. Houston police have not provided details about the 2016 detention.

However, no court records have emerged showing a judge ordered Moreno to receive mental health treatment, which would have made it more difficult for her to purchase a gun.

Does Texas have “red flag” laws?

It does not. And in recent years, state Republican lawmakers have shown no appetite to take them up.

Red flag laws, also known as extreme risk protection orders, allow family members and law enforcement to ask a judge to remove firearms from someone deemed to be at risk of harming themselves or others. 

Texas does allow law enforcement officers to temporarily seize a gun “found in possession” of a person taken into temporary custody when the officer determines the person is a “substantial risk” of causing harm amid a mental health crisis.

In a Facebook post Monday afternoon, Moreno’s ex-mother-in-law, Rabbi Walli Carranza, argued that stronger “red flag” laws could have prevented Moreno from getting weapons. Carranza said her daughter-in-law took medication for schizophrenia.

Twenty-one states have extreme-risk laws on the books, according to Everytown for Gun Safety, a gun-control advocacy group. Texas Republican lawmakers roundly oppose such laws, with some arguing that they violate due process and amount to “pre-crime punishment.”

How have Texas’ gun laws changed in recent years?

In recent years, state Republican lawmakers have taken steps to limit firearm restrictions and expand gun access.

Lawmakers enacted a law in 2021 that allows people to carry a handgun without a permit, along with measures that prohibit state agencies and local governments from enforcing new federal gun rules.

Lawmakers did, however, pass one law during the 2021 legislative session, known as the “lie and try bill,” that made it a state crime to put false information on background check documents related to buying a firearm. The law passed in response to mass shootings in El Paso and Odessa in 2019.

During the most recent legislative session, lawmakers did not advance many of the bills that would have limited some access to guns. One high-profile bill that died — raising the minimum age to purchase certain semi-automatic firearms from 18 to 21 — had strong support from families of the Uvalde school shooting victims.

A gun control measure that passed last year closed a loophole in state law that allowed people who had serious mental illness as juveniles to legally purchase firearms. The new law requires courts to report juvenile psychiatric hospitalizations to NICS.

How do Texas’ laws generally compare to other states?

Texas ranks 32nd in the country for gun law strength, according to Gifford Law Center.

The state’s firearm restrictions are “generally weaker than federal law’s and have significant gaps that allow people with significant histories of violent behavior to access weapons,” the gun safety group said in a blog post.

Correction, Feb. 20: This article has been corrected to clarify situations in which a person convicted of a felony can possess a firearm. It has also been updated to provide additional information about law enforcement officials temporarily seizing weapons from people during a mental health crisis.

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Monroe Trombly is a public safety reporter at the Abdelraoufsinno. Monroe comes to Texas from Ohio. He most recently worked at the Columbus Dispatch, where he covered breaking and trending news. Before...