The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Weakened gun laws put Texas Gov. Greg Abbott on the defensive

On May 25, Democrat Beto O’Rourke interrupted Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick (R) during a news conference on an elementary school shooting in Uvalde, Tex., on May 24. (Video: Reuters)

Amid a spate of mass shootings in recent years, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) responded by focusing on promoting mental health services and convening a task force that produced a 40-point plan centered on “hardening” school campuses and identifying threats.

But in the wake of the worst school attack in state history, Abbott is facing mounting criticism that his administration’s response has been inadequate and failed to deal with the most urgent problem: easy access to guns, including powerful assault rifles.

The latest on school shootings in America

The massacre at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde on Tuesday that left 19 students and two teachers dead was the fourth mass shooting in Texas with 10 or more fatalities since 2017. Yet as Abbott sought to reassure the public Wednesday that his administration is doing all it can to respond to the crisis, he sought to deflect blame for not doing enough to keep students safe.

The 40-point plan, parts of which were approved by the state legislature in 2019, was not broadly implemented, according to analysts and lawmakers. A gun rights groups hailed the state’s recent laws to loosen gun restrictions, including a measure passed last year authorizing residents to carry handguns without licenses or training.

At a news conference Wednesday, Abbott sought to play down the shooter’s relatively easy access to firearms, pointing out that residents 18 and older have been legally allowed to buy long guns — a category that includes the style of gun used in the Uvalde shooting — for more than 60 years.

“During that time … we have not had episodes like this,” Abbott said. “Why is it that in the majority of those 60 years, we did not have school shootings and why do we have them now? I really don’t have the answer to that question.”

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) on May 25 referenced gun violence in Chicago while talking about the shooting that left 21 dead at Robb Elementary School. (Video: Reuters)

Abbott defended his record during an appearance near the shooting site with top aides and Republican lawmakers, who sought to demonstrate a united front amid the investigation into the rampage. At one point, Abbott was interrupted by Beto O’Rourke, the Democratic nominee for governor. He accused the governor of having failed to stem gun violence.

“You are doing nothing!” O’Rourke shouted, before being escorted out of the venue by police.

Authorities have identified the gunman as Salvador Ronaldo Ramos, 18, who they said shot his grandmother before entering Robb Elementary School. Ramos had legally purchased a pair of semiautomatic rifles recently, they said.

Uvalde gunman bought two rifles and hundreds of rounds in days before massacre

Ramos, who was killed by police at the school, had no criminal record and left no forewarning of the attack other than a few social media messages about 30 minutes before he reached the site, authorities said.

Abbott speculated that Ramos probably suffered from mental illness — although he said authorities found no mental health record — and he called on political leaders to do more to address mental health.

Responding to questions from reporters over his response to past incidents, Abbott pointed to a 2018 attack at Santa Fe High School in the Houston area, where a 17-year-old student killed eight classmates and two teachers. In the aftermath, the governor convened a task force — composed of parents, teachers, law enforcement, students and advocacy groups — that produced the 40-recommendation school safety and firearm plan, to which Abbott pledged to devote $110 million.

Lawmakers passed several school-safety measures the following year that included increasing law enforcement on campus and arming more school personnel, and trying to prevent threats by identifying potentially dangerous students and connecting them with a telehealth counseling program, among other efforts to boost mental health resources.

“People need to understand that in the aftermath of the Santa Fe shootings, I signed 17 laws to address school safety,” Abbott said.

But Abbott abandoned support for a suggestion in the report that lawmakers consider approving a red-flag law, which would authorize police or family members to petition a court for removal of a firearm from someone considered a threat. Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick (R), an adamant gun rights supporter, strongly opposed that measure.

Although the telehealth program has expanded to more school districts since 2018, it is not being used in Uvalde, according to the Texas Tech University department that administers it.

“You’re always going to have, no matter what you do, someone to find another area that’s vulnerable,” Patrick said. “But the legislature did act. The governor signed those bills.”

The school safety plan had “good ideas in it,” said Nicole Golden, executive director of Texas Gun Sense, the only statewide advocacy organization for gun violence prevention. “I was tentatively, cautiously — I don’t know if I want to say hopeful, but curious and open to the initiatives that were put forward there.” A red-flag law and a requirement to report the loss or theft of guns, “were sensible measures that most voters here in Texas and around the country would support,” Golden said.

“But those fell short. He did not enact those things,” Golden said of Abbott.

In a report last June, Gun Owners of America hailed the Texas legislature for passing four bills to bolster gun rights, including a provision authorizing what gun rights groups call “constitutional carry” — the ability of residents to carry a handgun without a license or training. Another bill repealed the governor’s ability to regulate firearms during a disaster declaration or state of emergency.

“I do think it is strange to cite legislation from the wake of Santa Fe while you’re sitting in Uvalde discussing the massacre of children,” said state Rep. Joe Moody, a Democrat who represents El Paso, where a gunman killed 23 people in a Walmart in 2019. “The only reason to point out bills like that is that they somehow stopped this from happening. And they clearly didn’t.”

Moody said beefing up school security is necessary in a changing threat environment. But he emphasized that simply adding more security guards, cameras or metal detectors is not a reasonable or effective solution. A school security guard was present at the shooting site on Tuesday, authorities said.

“I want my children to grow up as children. I don’t want to drop them off at a low-security prison every day,” Moody said.

How the official accounts about the Uvalde shooting have changed

Flo Rice, a substitute teacher who was shot six times in the Santa Fe attack, said the broad school safety bill passed by Texas lawmakers seemed “like a monumental change.” She had testified in favor of measures to boost security and emergency response at schools — measures she said could have helped at Santa Fe, where she had no phone to call 911 nor a key to lock the gym door where she was working. “We were very happy. We thought, ‘Wow, something got accomplished!’”

But she said she has since learned that many of those measures “had no teeth,” or enforcement mechanism to make sure schools put them in place. Rice pointed to a 2020 report from Texas State University’s Texas School Safety Center, which found that only 67 of 1,022 school districts had a “sufficient” emergency operations plan, and 200 had a “viable active shooter policy.”

“It was all just pomp and circumstance and the governor patting himself on the back and saying, ‘Look what a good job I did,’” Rice said. “And here we are again.”

Rice said she and fellow advocates also pushed for more-stringent gun storage laws, because the alleged Santa Fe shooter had used his father’s weapons, and stronger laws to hold parents accountable if they failed to keep their weapons out of children’s hands and those weapons were used to harm others.

“None of these things passed,” she said. “They were totally ignored. So we were very disappointed about that.”

The legislature has approved more-modest measures to tighten gun laws. In 2019, after the shooting in El Paso and another series of shootings in Odessa and Midland three weeks later that killed seven, Abbott signed a measure that made it a crime to lie on a background check to illegally purchase a gun. The state also approved a plan that year to spend $1 million on a campaign to promote safe gun storage.

Abbott has faced intense pressure from gun rights groups, including the National Rifle Association.

On Wednesday, Aidan Johnston, director of federal affairs for Gun Owners of America, accused gun control advocates, including President Biden, of trying to co-opt the Uvalde shooting in service of a political agenda. Johnston said his group advocates for allowing teachers to be armed in the classroom.

“Nothing should come between a teacher who wants to defend children and their right to carry a firearm,” Johnston said. He called Robb Elementary School a “soft target” because it, like most Texas schools, is subject to the federal Gun-Free Zone Act.

Zeph Capo, president of the Texas chapter of the American Federation of Teachers, said meaningful gun control laws “fell to partisan politics within the Republican Party, a party that has chosen to listen to fringe voters over moms and dads, over teachers, over kids, over everyone else time and time again. Not only have they not done nothing, but they’ve actually made things worse.”

Loading...