For the first time since the Santa Fe High School shooting, state lawmakers on Monday weighed changing laws to prevent potentially dangerous people from possessing firearms and encourage safer gun storage.
Dozens of gun control advocates and opponents packed the Capitol hearing room of the House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee as lawmakers discussed multiple charges from Gov. Greg Abbott’s school safety plan. Abbott’s recommendations, released less than two weeks after 10 people were shot and killed at Santa Fe High School on May 18, included considering whether penalties are too light for those who provide guns to juveniles who kill people.
The Senate, which has held multiple hearings this month on school safety, has not yet taken up the issue.
Abbott asked lawmakers to consider establishing so-called red flag protective orders that allow family members and law enforcement personnel to petition a court to temporarily prohibit individuals who might harm themselves or others from possessing a gun. Ten states, including Florida, have passed red flag laws. Individuals who have their guns taken away can petition the court to get them back.
“If someone would have flagged a shooter from Parkland (Fla.) or the shooter from my very own high school, I would be sitting at home right now like a normal 18-year-old, possibly hanging out with friends, probably still asleep but not terrified of being shot at when I’m in a public place,” Bree Butler, who graduated from Santa Fe High School this month, told the House committee Monday.
Gun rights advocates told lawmakers that such protective orders could be abused and that there are enough laws in Texas that restrict dangerous individuals from possessing guns. Under current laws, felons, those who are involuntarily committed to a psychiatric hospital and those under domestic violence protective orders can be forbidden to own or buy guns.
“I do not want to see a good, law-abiding citizen go through the heartache, financial loss, family stress of the red flag law being abused by an unhappy neighbor, someone they disagree with, an unhappy schoolteacher with a student or a disgruntled family member,” said Gene Dolle, an Upshur County constable, outlining cases he’s seen in which individuals were reported as potentially dangerous when they were not.
Attorneys told the committee Monday that a red flag protective order should ensure individuals who have their guns taken away have access to mental health services. Mental health policy experts, however, cautioned lawmakers against applying red flag protective orders to those who have mental illness.
“Many people who have committed violent acts — whether it is a mass shooting or individual acts — are not mentally ill,” said Colleen Horton with the Hogg Foundation.
Lawmakers on Monday considered harsher penalties for furnishing a gun to a minor who kills or seriously hurts someone, which is now a Class A misdemeanor, but could be upped to a third-degree felony. They also discussed increasing the age of a minor in such cases from 17 to 18.
Jerry Patterson, a former state senator who wrote the state’s concealed handgun license law in 1995, spoke against raising the penalty, saying that a child’s death is punishment enough. He added that no law would eliminate school shootings altogether, only mitigate them.
Scott Elliff, a former superintendent and a professor of education leadership at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi, disagreed.
“Something must be done,” he said. “A piece of that is making sure that everybody is working together to ensure that our young people don’t have access to guns where they can do what they did in Santa Fe, in Parkland and elsewhere. I reject the notion that there is one answer as strongly as I reject the notion that nothing can be done about school shootings, which I was sad to hear earlier in testimony.”
Multiple speakers recounted stories of children accidentally shooting themselves and others because of improperly stored firearms. Eleven children died in such accidents from 2014 to 2015, according to most recent data from the Texas Department of State Health Services.
Officials with the Texas Department of Public Safety said they’ve started a new round of presentations on gun storage safety in driver’s license offices.
Echoing the sentiments of many gun rights activists in the room Monday, state Rep. Cole Hefner, R-Mount Pleasant, questioned the pragmatism of gun storage measures.
“A gun that is locked in a safe with a combination lock or trigger lock is more useless than a baseball bat,” Hefner said.