In the heavily fortified debate over mass shootings and gun violence in America, an important wall has come down.
Gone is the barricade that once held back any discussion on policy changes after a gunman slaughtered people at a school, or a church, or a concert. Gone is the cynical stonewalling that talking about solutions in such a moment is “playing politics.”
Within hours after a 17-year-old student opened fire on his classmates at Santa Fe High School near Galveston, Gov. Greg Abbott displayed leadership by calling for a wide-reaching dialogue on school shootings and bringing a range of experts and advocates to the table.
“We need to do more than just pray for the victims and their families,” Abbott said hours after the May 18 shooting that killed eight students and two adults and wounded 13 others. “It’s time in Texas that we take action to step up and make sure this tragedy is never repeated.”
As he did after the November shootings that killed 26 people in a Sutherland Springs church, Abbott described the latest slaughter as an act of evil. While his remarks after the church shooting carried a tone of resignation, that some things can’t be stopped, the governor’s comments in Santa Fe reflected the opposite: Some things can’t be ignored.
We stand with the students, parents and other Texans who wait to see if the governor’s talk of action will make our communities safer.
It is disappointing the governor chose to hold his three roundtable sessions this week behind closed doors, excluding the media and the general public from listening to these critical conversations. It was also short-sighted of the governor to exclude some of the most vocal gun control advocates, such as Moms Demand Action and March for Our Lives. We cannot talk about mass shootings without addressing guns.
But we are encouraged by the open-minded tenor of the meetings described by participants like Dallas schools superintendent Michael Hinojosa, who told NPR, “ Instead of trying to convince us of a certain way, they wanted to hear what we had to say.”
Some of the ideas Abbott publicly shared after the first meeting should enjoy broad support. Provide more counselors at schools to help reach troubled teens. Increase police presence on campuses. Improve school planning for active shooters.
Many of these ideas will cost money that cannot be drawn from already-squeezed school district budgets. If state leaders are serious about keeping schools safe, they must provide the additionalfunding to make that happen.
We are skeptical of the call to “harden” campuses by restricting entrances and adding airport-style security that leaves students stuck in lines outside a secure building, an easy target for a shooter. Nor should we expect teachers to do the jobs of police officers by pulling a weapon in a crowded school under attack.
Abbott rightly called on parents to shoulder some responsibility for teens who unleash violence at school. But the state must also ensure sufficient funding for in-patient mental health treatment once parents have recognized their child needs treatment. Too many families reach a crisis point only to discover a waiting list for help.
Finally, we cannot have a productive conversation about mass shootings without talking about the weapons used in these attacks. And while guns are deeply embedded in Texas’ culture, we should all agree that responsible gun ownership starts with keeping firearms out of the wrong people’s hands.
It’s already a crime in Texas for gun owners to leave an unsecured, loaded gun where a child 16 or under may access it. At a minimum, state lawmakers should update that law to apply to 17-year-olds like the Santa Fe shooter, who reportedly used a shotgun and a revolver legally owned by his father but left within the teen’s reach.
Abbott’s second roundtable discussion this week touched on other ideas to ensure guns are secured at home and authorities are promptly alerted if the courts determine a person shouldn’t have firearms.
To prevent the next massacre, though, we must do more. Texas should follow the lead of Florida lawmakers and their Republican governor who, after the Parkland high school massacre in February, approved legislation raising the age to buy a rifle or shotgun from 18 to 21 — matching the minimum age set by federal law for handgun sales by licensed dealers. Such a law would prevent older high school students from buying AR-15 weapons designed for war, while still providing exceptions for young people to use firearms for hunting or sport under the supervision of an adult.
While more than half of the Texas voters polled last fall said they supported stricter gun laws, we recognize any tightening of gun access will be a hard sell in the Texas Legislature.
But we’ve also seen horrific body counts accumulate by inaction.
Abbott’s serious response to the Santa Fe shooting, marked by a willingness to talk about guns and listen to ideas that don’t mirror his own, stands in stark contrast to the calcified ignorance of Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick. “It’s not about the guns, it’s about us,” Patrick said in an interview with ABC This Week just days after the school shooting, laying the blame on abortion, social media, violent movies and video games and a general culture that devalues life.
No, it’s about gunmen inflicting their personal rage on innocent people. It’s about young people having easier access to weapons than mental health support. It’s about assault rifles and high-capacity magazines that create much higher casualties than regular handguns could. It’s about political complacency after too many other shootings.
And, we hope after Santa Fe, it’s about to change.