Will School Shooting Spur Anti-Gun Furor? In Texas, Not Likely.
Posted May 20, 2018 8:55 p.m. EDT
SANTA FE, Texas — One mile from the scene of the shooting that left 10 people dead at her school, Monica Bracknell, a senior at Santa Fe High School, approached Texas Gov. Greg Abbott in the lobby of Arcadia First Baptist Church here Sunday morning.
Her message was simple: The violence was not “a political issue,” she told Abbott, explaining to reporters afterward that schools needed to be safer but restricting the availability of guns was not the way to achieve it.
After the February rampage at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, students there helped ignite the most successful push for action on gun control in decades in that state. There is little indication of anything similar in Texas, a place where guns are hard-wired into the state’s psyche, Republicans control virtually all the levers of power, and where the victims of Friday’s rampage in a conservative rural area are showing little of the anti-gun fervor that followed the Parkland shooting in a more diverse, suburban one.
In the wake of the tragedy, gun issues are likely to take on a new urgency in a few Texas political races, including Republican congressional districts that Democrats are trying to flip, but the debate is far more muted and dominated by support for gun rights than it had been in Florida.
“Florida is a swing state,” said Calvin Jillson, a professor of political science at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. “You start with the understanding that Florida is a purple state in which Democrats and Republicans are both competitive. Texas is a deep-red state, in which the Republican Party is in complete and total control. They don’t feel that partisan electoral heat.”
What played out instead was a reminder, as happened after 26 people were killed in a church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, in November, that gun violence often does not produce a backlash against guns. The differences in how the issue has played out in Texas and Florida illustrate just how hard it can be to forge a consensus on gun issues in America. For gun control advocates, what works in one part of the country does not work in others, even down to the vocabulary used. Some pro-gun Texans question using the phrase “gun violence” saying it is as arbitrary as talking about knife violence.
“People like to say on Facebook, ‘Oh, you shouldn’t be able to buy a gun,'” Bracknell told reporters at the church on Sunday, two days after police said a 17-year-old student used a shotgun and handgun, apparently belonging to his father, to kill 10 people, including a substitute teacher, Glenda Ann Perkins, whom Bracknell had known for years. “That kid was 17. He’s not able to buy a gun anyway. It’s not like a gun-law issue. This kid is obviously mentally unstable and he knew that there were flaws in the school system to get into the rooms.”
The differences between the fallout from the Florida and the Texas shootings begin with the communities where they occurred.
In Florida, parents and students put emotional and public political pressure on lawmakers, and legislators responded just three weeks after the Parkland massacre. The Republican governor of Florida, Rick Scott, signed into law several measures, including raising the minimum age and adding a waiting period to purchase a gun. In Texas, there is no widespread vocal pressure and activism from the families and students themselves. Many Santa Fe students’ views on guns track Bracknell’s.
Hours after the shooting on Friday at a prayer vigil, Madilyn Williams, an 18-year-old senior, tearfully told Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, how she and a friend had fled their astronomy class and rushed to a gas station when the shooting started.
While some students from Parkland had angrily confronted their pro-gun elected representatives after their school was shot up, Williams quietly told a nodding Cruz that she wanted her teachers to be armed. It was a refrain in the candlelit park that night: Stricter gun control laws would not have prevented the shooting, several students said. But they believed that arming qualified teachers could have.
“If one of the teachers had a gun, we would have been a lot better off,” Williams said.
Sid Miller, the state’s Republican agriculture commissioner and a former rodeo roping champion, said he wanted to apply “a little cowboy logic” to the gun debate. While Texas may be receptive to certain measures, such as strengthening security in schools, Miller said, officials will resist other policies championed by national gun control advocates.
“At this stage, any stricter gun control laws passing in Texas, that’s just not going to happen,” said Miller, a rancher who has a state-issued handgun license and whose combative social media commentary has outraged Democrats. “You can’t protect yourself by taking guns away from the good people.” There are signs of gun control support in Santa Fe. Students held a small post-Parkland march in February. On Sunday outside the school, near where Abbott laid flowers in memory of the victims, one handwritten sign read, “More peace and love and less guns in this world.”
Tyler Cruz, 18, a senior, said he would support any gun control movement that arises at his school now, but he knows his classmates will be divided. “Our community is really pro-gun here,” Cruz said. “I’m pro-gun, but I’m not. I get the Second Amendment, but I just believe it’s gotten too far with all this happening.”
Cruz has drawn support from the shooting survivors in Parkland and has been messaging with four of them on Twitter.
Republican leaders in Texas, including Abbott and Ted Cruz, have been criticized by Democrats for failing to act in response to the Santa Fe shooting, accusations they dispute. Instead, they and gun advocates nationally talk about a need to act — but not by restricting guns.
Since the shooting, gun rights advocates have called for arming teachers, redesigningschool buildings and promoting safer gun storage at home to keep firearms out of the hands of children and teenagers.
Abbott has proposed holding round-table discussions, saying he wanted to work on laws that will protect Second Amendment rights while making schools safer. Oliver North, the incoming president of the National Rifle Association, Sunday on Fox News blamed mass shootings on violent movies and overuse of psychiatric drugs like Ritalin.
The Republican lieutenant governor of Texas, Dan Patrick, has called for reducing the number of entrances and exits at schools. On the CNN program “State of the Union,” Patrick on Sunday also called on parents to strictly control their guns to keep them out of the hands of children, but he stopped short of calling for specific legislation mandating that.
The gun debate here touches on one of the central divides that shapes politics in Texas: the largely Democratic urban areas versus more conservative rural and suburban ones. Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo, for example, has bitterly denounced inaction on gun issues, and Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner called for new gun control measures and metal detectors in schools.
Santa Fe is a largely rural town in a part of southeast Texas that is home to oil refineries and working-class Republicans who own guns and routinely hunt. The town is only about 40 miles southeast of downtown Houston, but it is closer in its political and social culture to Southern-tinged East Texas. At least a handful of Confederate flags fly around town, on trucks, porches and businesses.
Polling shows the state’s voters are more split on guns than popular culture might indicate. According to an October poll by the University of Texas and The Texas Tribune, more than half of the registered voters surveyed said gun control laws should be stricter. Only 13 percent said the laws should be less strict, and 31 percent would prefer to leave current gun laws unchanged.
But, for now, the pro-gun forces are firmly in control, and deeply conservative voices are not hard to find.
As Patrick greeted parishioners at Arcadia First Baptist Church on Sunday morning, he got an enthusiastic greeting from Robert Ross, 69, who has lived in Santa Fe all his life and has a nephew who once played football with the gunman. Ross said he believed the solution to school violence was not gun control, but faith. He blamed the shooting on what he called a cultural decay exemplified by legal abortion, same-sex marriage and the separation of church and state.
“We wonder why this is happening,” he said. “Satan’s right there. He’s always putting his foot in everything.”