Travis County district attorney announces plan to curb gun violence

Photo of Jose Garza and other Austin-Travis County officials at a news conference
Travis County District Attorney Jose Garza announced a strategy to curb gun violence in the Austin area Nov. 16. (Olivia Aldridge/Community Impact Newspaper)

Travis County District Attorney Jose Garza announced a strategy to curb gun violence in the Austin area Nov. 16. (Olivia Aldridge/Community Impact Newspaper)

Travis County District Attorney Jose Garza announced Nov. 16 a strategy to address gun violence in Austin and Travis County with support from other city, county and community leaders.

The Travis County District Attorney's Office's four-pronged approach includes utilizing new and traditional prosecution methods to pursue sentencing in gun crimes; partnering with community members to create and implement violence-prevention programs; preventing individuals who are at high risk for committing gun-involved intimate partner violence from attaining firearms; and providing support for survivors of gun violence and the families of victims, including through the possible creation of a trauma recovery center.

"As our nation struggles to emerge from the deadliest pandemic in the century, we are also continuing to struggle with an alarming increase in gun violence and homicides across the country—and right here in our own community. This increase has occurred even as the overall crime rate has dropped," Garza said.

As of Nov. 16, there have been 82 homicides in Travis County in 2021, up from 43 in 2017, Garza said. Garza attributed the increase to the coronavirus pandemic's damage to the economy, bringing an "attendant rise in what happens when people lose their jobs, their homes, and access to mental health and substance use disorder treatment." He noted that homicides have risen the most in areas hardest hit by COVID-19.

TCDAO launched a homicide and major crimes unit in April, part of a focus on using resources to prosecute serious crime and favor diversion efforts for lower-level offenses. Since the beginning of 2021, the DA's office has dealt with 717 total firearm cases, according to a report from the TCDAO. Fifty-five percent of those cases have resulted in indictments, and another 21% are still under consideration for possible indictment.

"I want to be as clear as I can: If you pick up a gun, pull the trigger and take someone's life in this community, you will be arrested, and you will be held accountable. But if we are serious about ending violence in our community, we have to do more than punish people after they have caused harm," Garza said. "We have to do all we can to prevent violence before it happens. That's why in addition to traditional prosecution strategies, our office will also work to implement diversion strategies that are proven to reduce future crime."

The DA's office will appoint a liaison to the city of Austin's recently established office of violence prevention, joining in an effort to implement a "community violence intervention program" by tapping community members who have experienced violence to work with at-risk clients, connecting them with education, therapy, drug treatment and other resources.

National violence expert Chico Tillman, a member of the Fund Peace initiative, said he supported Austin and Travis County's approach to addressing gun violence.

"What we want to do today in Austin is move forward with a comprehensive strategy where we utilize individuals in the community with lived experience who will complement the great work of public safety officers. They're not here to replace police officers. They're here to complement the work of public safety officers," Tillman said.

Another key component of the DA's strategy is preventing gun ownership in those at risk of committing intimate partner violence by ramping up the county's existing firearm surrender program. Currently, when arrested individuals considered at risk for gun violence are released on bond, local judges are asked to require them to surrender firearms as a stipulation of their release. Under the DA office's new gun violence strategy, Travis County would research and develop more opportunities for intervention.

The TCDAO's announcement follows the Austin Police Department's Violence Intervention Program, which launched this spring and is currently under consideration for future activity. The program involved a focus on seizing illegally owned firearms to prevent homicides and violent crime.

Read the full TCDAO gun violence strategy here.
By Olivia Aldridge

Reporter, Central Austin

Olivia joined Community Impact Newspaper as a reporter in March 2019. She covers public health, business, development and Travis County government. A graduate of Presbyterian College in South Carolina, Olivia worked as a reporter and producer for South Carolina Public Radio before moving to Texas. Her work has appeared on NPR and in the New York Times.