AUSTIN (Nexstar) — The questions come after every mass shooting. When will it end? How can we keep our families and ourselves safe? What needs to change? Will anything change?
History shows mixed results for those calling for gun control legislation. In Texas, the legislative response after mass shootings has led to laws aiming to improve safety, but also laws to reduce restrictions on guns.
After a 17-year-old killed 10 people in Santa Fe, Texas, Gov. Greg Abbott called for a series of roundtables and laid out extensive school safety plan recommendations. Lawmakers also passed bills in response, including the creation of a Texas Child Mental Health consortium and requiring school districts to set up “threat assessment teams” of people trained to spot red flags.
People, and the lawmakers who represent them, tend not to be swayed into changing their views on guns in the wake of deadly mass shootings. Polling from the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas gives perspective on how public opinion barely shifted after a pair of mass shootings in Texas in 2019.
In February 2019, the project polled Texas voters and asked if the state’s gun control laws should be more strict, less strict, or left alone. Slightly less than half, 49%, said the state needed more strict gun laws. Thirty percent of the respondents said that gun laws were fine as-is. Seventeen percent said the state needed gun laws to be less strict.
Then, in August 2019, Texas saw two separate mass shooting incidents.
In El Paso, a man who drove for hours to get to the city had posted an anti-Hispanic manifesto online, then went to a Walmart store and opened fire. He killed 23 people before surrendering to police. He is awaiting trial.
A few weeks later another man went on a shooting spree across Midland and Odessa. He killed seven people before police shot and killed him. The gunman had been blocked from buying a gun after being flagged by a criminal background check. He bought the weapon used in the shootings from a private seller, who was later convicted of dealing firearms without a license.
The Texas Politics Project did another poll in October 2019, asking the same question from earlier in the year: should Texas gun laws be more strict, less strict, or left alone?
The results showed public opinion barely moved after the pair of mass shootings.
Just over half of Texans, 51% said they wanted gun laws to be more strict, a slight increase from their February poll. The number who wanted to see fewer gun restrictions dropped slightly to 13%.
The shootings happened just months after Texas lawmakers adjourned from the 2019 legislative session. When they returned to the State Capitol in 2021, lawmakers responded with legislation to loosen restrictions on guns.
In 2021, Abbott signed a number of bills into law surrounding guns. As of August, Texans older than 21 were allowed to carry a handgun in public without a permit under House Bill 1927. There are exceptions for felons and those younger than that, and buyers still need to pass a gun store background check. Below are other laws that went into effect:
- Senate Bill 19: Creates a prohibition on contracts with companies that discriminate against the firearm and ammunition industry
- Senate Bill 20: Allows hotel guests to have guns and ammunition in their rooms
- Senate Bill 550: Permits a person to carry a gun in any type of holster
- House Bill 957: Exempts suppressors made in Texas from federal regulations
- House Bill 1500: Makes firearms and ammunition sellers and manufacturers essential businesses
- House Bill 2622: Creates a “Second Amendment Sanctuary State” in Texas
After the Uvalde, Texas, shootings, there have been already been calls from lawmakers to have Abbott call a special session to address questions surrounding mass shootings and gun violence. Without a special session, lawmakers would have to wait until next year to pass legislation tackling the issue.
Lawmakers in Washington already have a bill in front of them seeking to require a background check for all gun purchases. It’s pending in the Senate, after passing the House. Democrats are on board, but the legislation needs support from at least 10 Senate Republicans to advance past an expected filibuster to kill the bill.
Texas Senator John Cornyn, a Republican, previously worked across party lines to pass legislation aimed at strengthening background checks. It happened in the wake of the 2017 mass shooting at a church in Sutherland Springs, Texas.
The gunman bought the weapon used in the killings, despite a domestic violence conviction that should have been flagged in a background check. But information about the conviction had not been entered into the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, or NICS. Cornyn’s “Fix NICS Act” requires all federal agencies and states to upload data to the NICS system.
Cornyn gave a cautious reply when reporters asked him about whether he would support the background check bill currently up for debate in Washington.
“This is not an excuse to infringe on the 2nd Amendment rights of law-abiding citizens. Doing that will do nothing to fix tragedies like this,” said Cornyn, referring to the school shooting in Uvalde.
But he voiced support for working toward a bipartisan bill to boost background checks. He said recent mass shootings could move some Republicans to support a compromise measure.
“Well, this is a new development. Buffalo is a new development. I think there’s a sense of urgency that we didn’t feel before,” said Cornyn, when asked what it would take to get 10 Republican senators to support the background check legislation.
“We’re going to try. I mean, that’s all we can do is try,” Cornyn said.
Renewed calls for gun restrictions after Uvalde school shooting
A day after the third deadliest school shooting in U.S. history, there was quiet reflection outside of the Texas Governor’s Mansion Wednesday afternoon, as protesters and parents brought signs and flowers.
“Enough is enough,” said Connie Hays of New Braunfels, who wore a red shirt that read “Moms Demand Action.”
Hays said she felt compelled to protest after her friend’s 8-year-old daughter was killed in the shooting at Uvalde elementary school that left 19 children and two adults dead Tuesday.
“Because we have children,” Hays said, calling on lawmakers to pass universal background checks.
“I want [my children] to live past me. That’s why I’m here,” said Hays’ friend, Heidi Ragsdale, holding a stroller with her young child. “I won’t be able to live without them. That’s it.”
“My kids, and everyone else’s children, matter more than the NRA’s donation money,” Ragsdale added, referencing the National Rifle Association convention taking place in Houston this weekend where former President Donald Trump, Gov. Greg Abbott and Sen. Ted Cruz were scheduled to speak.
Last year, Abbott signed measures into law further loosening access to guns. The new laws prohibit enforcement of new federal gun regulations and allows Texans aged 21 and older the ability to carry a handgun in public without training or a permit.
Under state law, the 18-year-old shooter was able to legally purchase two AR-15 style rifles. Handguns can legally be purchased at 21.
“The ability of an 18-year-old to buy a long gun has been in place in the state of Texas for more than 60 years,” said Abbott at a news conference in Uvalde Wednesday, defending the law. “And think about during that time, during the course of those 60 years, we have not had episodes like this.”
He stressed the need, instead, for mental health resources.
“We as a state, we as a society need to do a better job with mental health,” Abbott said.
Responding to a reporter’s question, the governor pushed back on calls for gun control.
“There are, quote, ‘real gun laws’ in Chicago. There are, quote, ‘real gun laws’ in New York. There are, quote, ‘real gun laws’ in California,” Abbott said. “I hate to say this, but there are more people shot every weekend in Chicago than there are in schools in Texas. And, we need to realize that people who think, ‘maybe if we implement tougher gun laws, it’s going to solve it.’ Chicago and LA and New York disprove that thesis. And, so, if you’re looking for a real solution, Chicago teaches that what you’re talking about is not a real solution. Our job is to come up with real solutions that we can implement.”
Cruz also pushed back on calls for stricter gun measures.
“That doesn’t work. It’s not effective. It doesn’t prevent crime,” Cruz said. “We know what does prevent crime, which is going after felons and fugitives and those with serious mental illness. Arresting them. Prosecuting them when they try to illegally buy firearms.”
At the same news conference, Abbott’s Democratic opponent Beto O’Rourke confronted the governor over the lack of reforms following other Texas mass shootings in El Paso and Santa Fe.
“You are doing nothing. Your office is doing nothing,” said O’Rourke before being escorted out.
Democrats are again renewing calls for “common sense” gun reforms.
“As a nation, we have to ask: When in God’s name are we going to stand up to the gun lobby?” asked President Biden at the White House Tuesday. “When, in God’s name, are we going to do what we all know in our gut needs to be done?”
State Sen. Sarah Eckhardt (D-Austin) said the governor could call a special session to require universal background checks, allow concerned family, friends and teachers to get a court order to remove guns from people found to be a danger to themselves and others, and raise the minimum age to purchase a gun.
“But he won’t do that,” Eckhardt said. “These are basic safety measures that a vast majority of Texans are desperate to see. It is unconscionable that our state’s elected officials are unwilling to deliver basic, lifesaving protections.”
“I am a parent,” she added in a statement. “I have been on the phone with other parents today and yesterday who feel like we are in a game of Russian Roulette. No one is safe. Who will be next? What will we do?”
In the last decade, there has been little progress in the way of federal gun reform. In 2018, following the mass shootings in Las Vegas and Parkland, Florida, President Trump issued a memorandum instructing the attorney general to propose a rule banning devices that allow semi-automatic weapons to fire fully automatic. The bump stock ban went into effect in 2019.
“When we passed the assault weapons ban, mass shootings went down,” Biden said. “When the law expired, mass shootings tripled.”
The law banned firearms deemed “assault weapons” and large-capacity magazines capable of holding more than 10 rounds. When the ban went into effect, about a million assault weapons were already owned and could remain in private hands. It was reintroduced in 2013, following the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary that killed 20 students and six adults, but failed to pass.
While its effectiveness has been debated, Dr. Lori Post, with Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine, says the ban worked.
“During the 10 years the ban was in place, between 1994-2004, there was a dramatic decrease in mass shootings,” Post said. “If we had kept the federal assault weapons ban in place it would have resulted in significantly fewer mass shootings and also the lethality would have been reduced as well.”
Last year, she authored a report that studied the effectiveness of the federal assault weapons ban. She looked at mass shootings — defined as four or more people killed — from 1966 to 2019. The report found that as many as 30 mass shootings, 339 deaths and 1,139 injuries could have been prevented if the ban had remained in place.
Other studies point to an increase in mass shootings following the lifting of the assault weapons ban. A 2019 New York University study, for example, found mass shooting deaths were 70% less likely to occur during the decade the ban was in place.
With Abbott and others calling for an increase in mental health services, Post cautions a need to not stigmatize people who have mental illness.
“Most humans cannot possibly understand why a person would want to go and slaughter little children, so we automatically attribute mental health to it, when it’s really not,” Post said. “And, I think, you know, the important thing to remember is that we don’t want to stigmatize people who have mental health problems. And, that it’s not a mental illness when you’re just evil and cold or a psychopathic, narcissistic, sociopathic type of personality with no empathy.”
In February, the National Institute of Justice looked at mass shootings over the past 50 years. It found 25% used assault rifles but most, 77%, were committed with handguns. Like in Uvalde, 77% of the time those guns were purchased legally, the report found.
An assault weapons ban was introduced, again, last year by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.).
2018 Santa Fe High School shooting led to new safety requirements in Texas
As new details emerge about a mass shooting at an elementary school in Uvalde, Abbott and other state leaders said they would be reviewing changes made four years ago, following another Texas tragedy.
In 2018, after a teenager shot and killed 10 people at a high school in Santa Fe, Texas, Abbott released a nearly 50-page report containing dozens of recommendations on how to make schools safer: from funding prevention resources to requiring new preparedness programs.
Read the 2018 recommendations here
By 2019, lawmakers passed as many as 17 bills in response. One piece of sweeping legislation in particular, SB 11, was the culmination of months of roundtable discussions and hearings at the Capitol.
“We consider what was done in 2019 to be one of the most profound legislative sessions, not just in Texas but that we have seen in any state, in addressing school shootings,” said Abbott at a press conference Tuesday in Uvalde. “But to be clear, we all understand, that work is not done.”
Since 2005, school districts have been required to keep a “multi-hazard” emergency operations plan (EOP). After Santa Fe, lawmakers called on school districts to bolster their plans in several ways. For one, the plans must include regular emergency drills and a specific policy for responding to an active shooter. These plans must also lay out pathways to recovery after a crisis.
Districts must submit those plans for review by The Texas School Safety Center (TXSSC), based in San Marcos at Texas State University. The center audits these plans for all 1,022 Texas school districts every three years.
“All of those things we have been training on for years, but are now in legislation,” TXSSC Director Kathy Martinez-Prather said. “Those are things we are specifically checking for, in terms of legislative provisions, but also best practices.”
According to their most recent report, which audited the 2017-2020 school years, plans for just 67 Texas school districts plans were deemed “sufficient,” meaning they followed all the best practices.
162 districts, or 16%, did not have a plan in place as of 2020, according to the findings of the report.
Among the districts that had adopted an EOP, 86% reported that their plan contained drills such as fire evacuation, lockdown, shelter for weather, lockout and shelter-in-place for HAZMAT situations. At 73%, slightly fewer districts reported mandating reunification drills in their plan.
The vast majority of districts reported having an active shooter policy included in their plans, but the TXSSC review indicated that only 200 districts had a “viable” active shooter policy.
According to a KXAN Solutions Journalism project in 2019, the Texas Education Agency could appoint a conservator over school districts that are not in compliance with these safety reforms six months after an audit. If there are still no changes after that, the state agency can then appoint a board of managers to run the security for the school.
Districts were required develop and train behavioral threat assessment teams to search for red flags and other threats, in order to stop incidents before they happen. Martinez-Prather called this the “biggest” and most impactful change to come out of the 2019 legislative session.
“You’re thinking, ‘A threat has come in. This team is coming together. they are going to assess the credibility of it and either an arrest is going to be made or the student is going to be expelled,'” Martinez-Prather explained, noting that that is only a “piece” of what these teams do.
Martinez-Prather said the goal is often connecting students with the right resources and help after a threat is made or before the situation escalates.
“How do we get them connected with mental health supports, so they can be successful in the educational setting? How do we get them off the pathway to violence?” she said.
Of the 1,022 total districts, 80% reported their board of trustees had established a behavioral threat assessment team.
Martinez-Prather said it goes beyond the teams. They offer other assessments and training to help everyone from district leaders to law enforcement to students and teachers identify potential intervention points.
“We know that in the majority of these events, someone knew something. Someone had a hunch. Someone wasn’t surprised that that happened,” she said.
For example, the center’s Digital Threat Assessment Toolkit teaches basic techniques for assessing threats on social media and determining whether pictures are real or stock photos.
This was another big focus in 2019, when state officials added another “fusion center” in the state to help monitor social media threats. The seven fusion centers coordinate with local, state and federal law enforcement agencies to investigate and respond to potential criminal and terrorist acts.
On Tuesday in Uvalde, discussions around mental health took center stage.
“There is an urgent need for everybody affected to access mental health,” Abbott said.
Abbott said the gunman in this attack had no known criminal or mental health history, but noted that but investigators are still looking into his background. The governor said during a discussion with law enforcement, city officials and state leaders, they all said, “we have a problem with mental health illness in this community.”
In 2018 and 2019, some legislative action focused on funding and growing mental health resources.
Two bills allowed more participation in Mental Health First Aid training courses. According to a report published by the Governor’s office in the fall of 2019, participation in these courses had increased 37% from the year before, among public school district employees and school resource officers.
SB 11 was also supposed to provide districts with $100 million to be used to fund school-based mental health centers, the hiring of counselors and “other mental health-related needs.” Additionally, the bill established the Texas Child Mental Health Care Consortium — a network of university experts on the subject from across the state that is still operating today.
After the shooting in Santa Fe, leaders and lawmakers also focused on increasing law enforcement presence and tangible security measures on campus — often called “hardening” the schools.
According to the 2019 update published by the Governor’s office on the ongoing efforts, “collaboration between schools and law enforcement has increased as officers are adding campuses to regular patrol routes and schools are allowing law enforcement to use campus facilities for breaks, lunch, or to file reports.”
Lawmakers also removed the cap on how many trained school employees can carry guns on campus and expanded the School Marshal program. The optional program allows districts to arm and train select employees on campus.
Under SB 11, school districts also gained access to millions in funding for infrastructure improvements, such as campus-wide active shooter alarm systems, bulletproof glass and metal detectors at entrances.
The original 2018 recommendations released by Abbott after the tragedy in Santa Fe included a few potential changes for “enhancing firearm safety,” including strengthening the Safe Firearm Storage Law or looking at making reporting of lost or stolen guns mandatory. The recommendations also included the possibility of studying a “red flag” law to identify someone who may be a danger to themselves or others and who has access to or owns firearms.
However, neither SB 11 nor other efforts at the time focused on these recommendations, and the Governor’s 2019 publication makes no mention of them.
As of August 2021, Texans older than 21 were allowed to carry a handgun in public without a permit under House Bill 1927.
How people across the country are helping Uvalde grieve
More than 100 people with the Texas Funeral Directors Association arrived in Uvalde on Thursday to provide assistance to families who lost loved ones in the Robb Elementary School shooting.
Directors, counselors and volunteers with the association are on hand to help the families with funeral arrangements, and those are just some of the people who are in town lending people a hand.
Both Lutheran Church Charities and Maya’s Love are nonprofit groups sending support in various ways. Lutheran Church Charities, a national nonprofit, provided support dogs and a cross for each victim. Bonnie Fear with the organization said the folks who work for them know when someone is feeling the effects of a tragedy like this.
“We’re trained to watch and to look at people’s eyes and to look how they’re feeling their body language and we’ll just go put an arm around them or we stand next to him with a dog because we know, we know they’re hurting,” Fear said.
Maira Carrier with the San Antonio-based Maya’s Love is helping provide, toys, food and hugs for those affected.
“We provide care packages and resources for children who have been through emotional trauma. So we just want you to be here and show some love,” Carrier said.
Uvalde residents are feeling the pain, even if they aren’t in the awful position of families who lost loved ones. They still live there and can sense what the incident has done to the community.
“My heart dropped to the floor. I was scared. You know, I have friends that have kids that attended that school,” Uvalde resident Martina Aviles said.
Lucy Cardona lives close to Robb Elementary where the shooting happened and knew both teachers, Irma Garcia and Eva Mireles, who were killed in the shooting.
“The teachers, they’re never coming back. And those innocent children, too,” Cardona said. “They were both loyal, dedicated, good teachers. The kids adored them, they loved them. And I did too. And I’m really, I’m hurting.”
Uvalde Consolidated Independent School District set up a memorial fund to help families, and there are ways to help with medical and funeral costs.