National News

Texas Governor Gathers Leaders to Talk Gun Violence: ‘What Are We Going to Do to Prevent This?’

Posted May 22, 2018 9:21 p.m. EDT
Updated May 22, 2018 9:24 p.m. EDT

AUSTIN, Texas — Four days after the latest school shooting left 10 people dead at a Texas high school, Gov. Greg Abbott — torn between his state’s reluctance to pass new gun control laws and his own frustration at the grim and growing tally of young deaths — convened on Tuesday the first in a series of round-table discussions on ways to help protect schools from gun violence.

“Whether you are a Republican or Democrat, whether you are pro-gun or believe in more gun regulations, the reality is we all want guns out of the hands of those who would try to murder our children,” the Republican governor said as he opened the first day of talks in the state Capitol with lawmakers, school administrators and law enforcement officials. “The question is what are we, the leaders of Texas, going to do to prevent this from happening again?”

During the afternoon-long session, school experts and law enforcement officials found broad agreement on a host of preliminary ideas, some of which could be put into place without legislative approval before the start of school, in August.

The group’s recommendations included increasing parental accountability and encouraging students to pass along information about potentially violent students. The governor strongly endorsed proposals to expand and strengthen training for school officials, create threat assessment and mental intervention programs, and evaluate entrances and exits to make schools more secure. Discussion of guns and gun laws was reserved for the session on Wednesday.

Abbott announced the discussions immediately after the shooting at Santa Fe High School, south of Houston, touched off another wave of grief and fear — just six months after another mass shooting at a Baptist church in the Texas town of Sutherland Springs left 26 people dead and 20 others injured.

The governor’s critics have derided the meetings as inadequate given the enormity of the problem, but the quick response represented the conservative Texas leadership’s most extensive undertaking yet to confront the pattern of mass shootings that has plagued states across the country — few more painfully than Texas.

“Every single time there is a shooting, everyone wants to talk about what the problem is. By now, we know what the problem is: The problem is that innocent people are being shot,” Abbott said before the meeting, which proceeded behind closed doors.

Two more sessions are planned through Thursday, with more than 60 participants. Tuesday’s session, which also featured experts in school safety and threat assessment, focused on how to make schools safer.

Wednesday’s meeting will feature the Texas State Rifle Association, a nearly century-old organization that is the state affiliate of the National Rifle Association, and a representative from Texas Gun Sense, a gun legislation reform group. It is rare, in Texas, for gun-rights groups and gun-control organizations to sit at the same table together and have a conversation about guns. Usually, the only time their members get close to one another is when they are testifying for or against gun-related legislation at the capitol.

Alice Tripp, legislative director for the Texas State Rifle Association, said she planned to do “a lot of listening” at Wednesday’s session.

“I’m listening for what’s missing,” she said, defending Texas’ pro-gun environment. “No matter what it is, it’s got to work. It can’t be something that sounds good politically.”

Thursday’s session will include discussions with survivors of the shootings in Santa Fe and Sutherland Springs.

“We want to know firsthand from these victims what it is they desire in the form of solutions by the state of Texas,” Abbott said. A poll in October by the University of Texas and The Texas Tribune found that more than half the registered voters surveyed in the state agreed with the idea that gun control laws should be stricter. But calls for new gun control laws are an unlikely outcome of this week’s meetings. Abbott and the Republican leadership in the state Legislature are strong proponents of gun rights, in a state where 1.2 million people are licensed to carry firearms.

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, one of the participants, has called for arming teachers and possibly retrofitting schools to limit exits and entrances.

Patrick joined Abbott on Tuesday in celebrating the round-table talks, saying “there was agreement on almost everything anyone said.”

“Whatever it is, protecting our students, protecting the families of Texas is always the No. 1 priority for us,” he added.

Democrats have accused the Republican leadership of talking about what to do rather than moving swiftly to pass gun restrictions and new school-safety measures. And they have criticized the fact that this week’s round tables are being held behind closed doors.

“Even Donald Trump kept a town hall at the White House open to press following the Parkland shootings,” Manny Garcia, deputy executive director of the Texas Democratic Party, said in a statement, referring to the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, that left 17 people dead.

The mayor and the police chief in Houston, the state’s largest city, have been outspoken in recent days, criticizing the failure of elected officials to act swiftly. The mayor and the chief have not been invited to any of Abbott’s roundtables.

The Houston police chief, Art Acevedo, who is also the first vice president of the Major Cities Chiefs Association, posted a comment on Facebook that was praised by gun control advocates, writing that the proper response to the latest mass shooting was not prayers, study and inaction, but “prayers, action and the asking of God’s forgiveness for our inaction.”

The Houston mayor, Sylvester Turner, a Democrat, called on state lawmakers to enact gun-control laws and finance the installation of metal detectors in public schools.