Editorial Roundup: Texas

Austin American-Statesman. July 20, 2022.

Editorial: Uvalde report downplays the obvious: It’s the guns.

A damning state legislative report released Sunday describes pervasive failures to prevent or effectively respond to the Uvalde school massacre, but it fails to drive home a key point: If a disturbed 18-year-old had been unable to buy a powerful AR-15-style rifle, the slaughter of innocent children and teachers might not have happened.

The 77-page report by the Texas House Investigative Committee on the Robb Elementary Shooting gives a chilling and detailed account of the circumstances leading up to the horrific day of the shooting. It reveals that the attacker’s family noticed alarming changes in the young shooter’s behavior, including violent threats, but failed to notify authorities or try to get him help. It describes how school faculty failed to follow security policy by habitually leaving doors unlocked or propping them open for the sake of convenience. And the report details how armed police ignored their active shooter training and failed to stop the gunman sooner.

Republicans and the gun lobby have long claimed that a good guy with a gun can stop a bad guy with a gun, but there were 375 “good guys” with guns at Robb Elementary who failed to stop an 18-year-old with a more powerful AR-15-style rifle. Instead, several spent 70 minutes pacing and waiting in hallways outside the classrooms where the shooter had executed schoolchildren and their teachers. Finally, a U.S. Border Patrol officer went in and killed the gunman.

These failures are both heartbreaking and infuriating to consider, but they aren’t entirely new. We’ve seen similar negligence in the nightmarish wave of mass shootings across our nation. While the House investigative committee’s report shines a powerful light on failures that led to the Uvalde shooting, it gives only brief reference to the easy availability of the AR-15-style rifle, ammunition and magazines that enabled the shooter to kill and maim his victims in mere minutes.

“There was no legal impediment to the attacker buying two AR-15-style rifles, 60 magazines, and over 2,000 rounds of ammunition when he turned 18,” the report’s conclusion says. “The ATF (Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms) was not required to notify the local sheriff of the multiple purchases.”

Rep. Joe Moody, an El Paso Democrat and a member of the committee that conducted the investigation, noted the shooter was unable to buy a gun before he was 18 and failed to convince others to buy one for him.

“I think this is actually a concrete example of the laws we have working, but not being sufficient,” Moody told our editorial board. “He tried to get these weapons before he was 18 and was unable to. If the law had been 21, I’m fairly certain he wouldn’t have been able to acquire them until he would be 21.”

State Sen. Roland Gutierrez, a Democrat who represents Uvalde and who has called for reinstatement of the federal assault weapons ban, agreed.

“This doesn’t happen if we don’t have these types of weapons in the hands of this18-year-old,” Gutierrez told us.

Despite some police organizations’ calls to limit the sale of assault weapons, Republicans in Congress refuse to consider banning them, and most Republicans in the Texas Legislature oppose raising the age to purchase guns to 21. This despite wave after wave of mass shootings and polls showing most Americans favor stricter gun control.

Rep. Dustin Burrows, a Lubbock Republican who led the legislative investigation into the Uvalde shooting, told reporters Sunday that it was premature to discuss additional gun control measures.

At some point, Burrows said, policymakers would share their opinions with the committee and others about the steps needed to prevent another Uvalde, “but right now, we’re gonna let the report speak for itself and focus on the facts that were found in there.”

Yes, let the facts speak. They tell us and Burrows, Gov. Greg Abbott and any other politician willing to listen that if we are to end the gun violence terrorizing our state and nation, we must first admit we can’t do it without addressing the root of the problem: the ease with which some can get their hands on weapons capable of killing so many innocent people in so little time.

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Dallas Morning News. July 22, 2022.

Editorial: Texas must stop punting mental health care to the county jails

Roughly a third of the state’s psychiatric beds are offline.

Industries all over are mired in staffing shortages. But the problems in the state’s network of psychiatric hospitals are particularly distressing, with significant repercussions for patients, county jailers and taxpayers.

This is a puzzle with no simple solution. Still, state lawmakers must intervene to help counties with a growing load of mental health cases. The status quo is unacceptable.

On Thursday, almost 400 people in the Dallas County jail were waiting for a bed in a psychiatric hospital. That’s because courts had deemed those inmates incompetent, meaning they weren’t well enough to participate in their defense because of mental illness. Although some have the means to seek treatment at a private facility, most of them have no choice but to go to a state hospital to recover.

Yet the state government cannot staff roughly a third of its psychiatric beds, according to a presentation given to lawmakers in late June. So Texas is shifting the burden to the county jails, which have no alternative but to house the inmates until they can be placed in a state hospital or, in some cases, until they’ve been behind bars for so long that they have essentially served the sentence for a crime for which they have not been convicted.

The latter has happened with misdemeanor cases. In those circumstances, cases get tossed, and inmates are released from jail. But then they don’t get the health care that could restore them and help them avoid another run-in with the law.

The wait times in Dallas County offer a picture of how bad the situation has become. Female inmates waiting for a bed in a hospital that is not maximum security used to wait about 20 days in 2017; now they wait 353 days. For men, the current wait is 401 days.

Men who need a bed in a maximum-security hospital wait 822 days.

Dallas County Commissioner John Wiley Price, who oversees the county’s jail population committee, estimates that these delays have cost county taxpayers about $13.5 million.

To be fair to state officials, it’s not that they’re idle on this issue. As our colleague Josephine Peterson recently reported, the Health and Human Services Commission has adopted pay raises, recruitment bonuses, flexible shifts and contracted staff to shore up its personnel shortage. And it has started a program with 15 counties to vet whether inmates waiting for a bed are actually legally incompetent.

In Dallas, a new state psychiatric hospital is about three years away. Officials said this week that the breakdown of beds for competency restoration and for the general population has not been determined yet.

State lawmakers should collect and review data about jail wait times and the outcomes of the mental health jail diversion services in which they have invested heavily in recent years. Are the programs successful, and are people enrolling? If not, what is happening?

And we urge them to take action to ease the burden on county jails.

“We understand the workforce challenges,” Dallas County Assistant Administrator Charles Reed told legislators in a recent hearing. “We get it; we’re experiencing the same thing … but it rings kind of hollow for us because we have no one else to pass the buck onto.”

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Fort Worth Star-Telegram. July 22, 2022.

Editorial: Is this awful summer heat is the new normal? Here’s how Texas should prepare for the worst

This is already a sweltering summer, even for Texas. Based on the long-term projections of climate change’s effects, we’ll see more like it. It’s time for Fort Worth and Texas to better prepare.

Heat waves cause myriad problems for residents, food and the land. In the last 20 years, Texas trails only Arizona in heat-related deaths.

We need more aggressive water-conservation strategies. Construction plans should factor in even greater energy efficiency and heat deflection. Governments need to anticipate more people needing help to stay cool and afford their utilities. We demand better fire prevention strategies.

And yes, there’s work to be done to ensure our power grid can keep up.

It’s slightly hotter in Phoenix, Arizona — we might consider learning from folks there. The mayor appointed a director of heat response and mitigation, someone who focuses solely on ways to handle extreme heat.

The position focuses on shielding residents from heat and developing long-term strategies to cool the city — two goals we undoubtedly share in the Dallas-Fort Worth area.

One is redesigning the city’s heat-trapping concrete landscape by planting more trees — a simple, cost-effective way to provide more shade. Phoenix also started implementing Cool Pavement in a handful of neighborhoods in 2020. It’s an asphalt coating, often applied to areas that already need preservation, that reflects more sunlight than normal so it absorbs less heat and offsets increasingly high nighttime temperatures.

So far, it’s going well. Cities here should consider a similar program, especially downtown and near parks.

In Las Vegas, another scorching city, residents take a few extra steps to summer-proof their homes. One thing often recommended there and rarely seen here is installation of energy-efficient window attachments, such as low-E films that block certain rays, tints and UV blockers. Such treatments keep some sunlight from entering, lowering temperatures inside your home and keeping that energy bill down.

Texans who work outside face the most heat exposure. At least 53 people have died working in the Texas heat since 2010. Regulations regarding temperature and work hours may help, but employers need to recognize the need for workers to rehydrate, seek shade and, if possible, shuffle hours to avoid the day’s worst heat.

Sadly there have already been at least two instances of children dying in hot cars in Texas this year, a common, tragic occurrence. The Texas Heatstroke Task Force communicates ways parents can avoid this fate. The biggest tip is for parents driving with small children in the backseat to place something vital they need with the child, such as a purse or wallet, to jog their memory that their child is with them — or to place something of the child’s up front with them, like a stuffed animal or water bottle.

According to the Texas Department of Public Safety’s 2018 Hazard Mitigation Plan, this extreme heat will cost agricultural workers an hour of daily productivity and reduce the yield of both cotton and corn. The annual losses could total about $400 million. The agricultural sector remains vital to Texas’ economy, and losses there will only contribute to our vexatious inflation.

When the power grid failed last year, among ERCOT’s many excuses was that the power grid wasn’t equipped to handle the cold; it was only designed for heat.

Now, in the middle of a Texas summer — one that’s hotter much earlier, true — the grid is still struggling. As long as heat drives record demand, we’re at risk of rolling blackouts. Power plants are struggling in the heat, skipping maintenance because they have been running nonstop. This can’t continue if temperatures remain the same. And if enough break down, there won’t be enough juice to satisfy demand.

Governments and businesses will need to plan for higher utility costs in the long term. And we’ll need to get creative and consider ideas that may have seemed silly before. Here’s one: Does Texas need more closed-in sports facilities? No one wants to pay for a domed football palace, but teams currently play nearly half the season in high heat.

If October increasingly becomes a summer month, athletes and fans alike may need the protection.

The school calendar, too, might need adjusting. Starting in August could be a huge strain if future summers match this one.

Heat is so common in Texas, we’ve learned to live with it and to relish the cooler months. But that may not be enough. We need to prepare ahead of time for increasingly blistering summers. No one in Texas should have to worry about going without air conditioning or dying of heat-related illness on their job.

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Houston Chronicle. July 23, 2022.

Editorial: Fear the AR-15. Nearly 400 officers in Uvalde certainly did.

Did you notice? It was the most remarkable thing. One evening last week, the House Judiciary Committee approved legislation that would impose the first assault- weapons ban in this country since an earlier ban was allowed to expire in 2004. Sure, the vote was predictable — 25 Democrats in favor, 18 Republicans opposed — but it’s been many years and many mass shootings since a congressional body felt compelled to approve really meaningful gun-safety legislation. (As much as we support gun-safety legislation that President Biden signed a few weeks ago, co-sponsored by our own Sen. John Cornyn, its gun-related components — including “incentives” for red-flag laws — were modest.)

Then again, maybe there was a reason last week’s judiciary committee vote was, in newspaper jargon, “below the fold.” It wasn’t that big a deal, because, whatever the House passes is destined to suffer a quick defeat in an evenly divided Senate.

Never mind that the original assault weapons ban — co-sponsored by a Delaware senator named Biden — had a positive impact. Never mind that assault weapons, combined with high-capacity magazines, have become the weapon of choice for mass shooters such as the deranged 18-year-old in Uvalde who slaughtered 19 children and two teachers, while wounding dozens more.

Enough elected officials in this country, particularly Republicans in craven thrall to the National Rifle Association, have decided that school children, concert-goers, Sunday morning worshippers, Walmart shoppers, movie audiences and folks in the workplace — in short, all of us — are mere collateral damage to their outlandish insistence that every American deserves to possess military-style weapons precisely engineered to kill the most people in the shortest amount of time.

U.S. Sen. John Thune, a South Dakota Republican who’s relatively reasonable on most issues, is one of those elected officials who maintains that several million weapons of war in circulation are nothing to worry about. He happened to mention a few weeks ago that many of his constituents enjoy using their AR-15s — or should we just call them America’s Rifle? — to shoot prairie dogs and other “varmints.” Over in the House, U.S. Rep. Ken Buck, a Colorado Republican, pointed out that rural Coloradans consider the AR-15 the “gun of choice for killing raccoons before they get to our chickens.” Foxes, too.

Presumably, Buck and Thune have seen what bullets fired from an AR-15 do to a prairie dog or a raccoon or a fox. The carcass splattered on the ground at their feet is a scrambled mess. Something similar happens to human beings, particularly small children.

So, Sen. Thune, how many pulverized prairie dogs is a defenseless youngster worth? How many AR-15 outings does a raccoon Rambo need before he decides that maybe he can just as easily protect his property with a .22?

As a member of the House Judiciary Committee, Buck last week heard Dr. Kyleanne Hunter, a retired Marine Corps officer who flew helicopters in Iraq and Afghanistan, describe the effects of a bullet (or, in almost every incident, many bullets) on a human body. She explained to the committee that the AR-15 is modeled after the military’s standard-issue battle rifle since being introduced in Vietnam in 1965. It’s a compact, lightweight weapon “designed to shoot through a standard military helmet at 500 yards.” What that does to a civilian who’s wearing not a helmet but maybe a baseball cap, she said, “is liquefy organs.”

Is it any wonder that 376 outgunned cops in Uvalde milled about in a school hallway for more than an hour, knowing that a shooter behind a classroom door was armed with a military weapon capable of splattering their heads like smashed pumpkins?

We have questions for U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, as well. As a presidential aspirant in 2015, he showed the world how to cook bacon draped over the hot barrel of a just-fired gun. “There are few things I enjoy more than on the weekend cooking breakfast with the family,” the senator says in his video. “Of course, in Texas, we cook bacon a little differently than most folks.”

In the video, the senator calls his unseemly skewer a machine gun, although it’s actually a semi-automatic Smith & Wesson M&P15 rifle. (M&P stands for military and police). It’s the same type of weapon a 19-year-old used on Valentine’s Day, 2018, to slaughter 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla.

On several occasions, the Texas senator visited Sutherland Springs, the small town east of San Antonio where on a Sunday morning in November, 2017, a shooter used his AR-15 to slaughter 26 worshippers at the local Baptist church, while wounding about the same number. Perhaps he’s aware that a little boy, 5 years old at the time, miraculously survived despite being shot five times. He was found lying under the protective body of his stepmother. In the five years since that horrific Sunday, he’s undergone 32 surgeries to repair his broken body. There’s no end in sight for future surgeries.

The latest Texas lawmaker to exhibit AR-15 idiocy is Ronny Jackson, a first-term Republican running for re-election in a North Texas district. In his most recent campaign video, the congressman is in T-shirt and jeans and cradling not just one but two AR-15s, while he dares President Biden “to come and get” his beloved weaponry. This man is a physician, for God’s sake, who swore an oath to save lives. He’s also the former White House doctor who famously pronounced the corpulent, exercise-phobic, fast-food aficionado in the White House at the time in “excellent” health.

As a doctor, Jackson might be familiar with assault weapon violence. If not, he should read a 2018 Atlantic article by a Florida radiologist trying to treat some of the Parkland victims.

“I was looking at a CT scan of one of the mass-shooting victims,” Heather Sher wrote. “...The organ looked like an overripe melon smashed by a sledgehammer, and was bleeding extensively. How could a gunshot wound have caused this much damage?

“The reaction in the emergency room was the same. One of the trauma surgeons opened a young victim in the operating room, and found only shreds of the organ that had been hit by a bullet from an AR-15, a semiautomatic rifle that delivers a devastatingly lethal, high-velocity bullet to the victim. Nothing was left to repair — and utterly, devastatingly, nothing could be done to fix the problem. The injury was fatal.”

Even the NRA — and maybe even a petulant Ronny Jackson — would concede that the Second Amendment allows for limits. Perhaps that is why we don’t see dove hunters wielding portable surface-to-air missile launchers.

AR-15s in their various iterations also are weapons of war. They belong on the battlefield, not in our communities. Short of banning them altogether — or at the very least raising the minimum age for acquiring one to 21 — we call upon businesses to stop their sale and responsible gun owners to resist their allure. If the politicians won’t do their jobs, the people have to step up. That’s what the grieving residents of Uvalde have learned in recent weeks. To help heal a nation inured to gun violence, the rest of us must stand with them.

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San Antonio Express-News. July 21, 2022.

Editorial: Miller is not blowing smoke on marijuana

What has happened? Texas Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller is the voice of reason in the state government… again?

In April, he criticized Gov. Greg Abbott’s creation of state-run truck checkpoints near the U.S.-Mexico border that wreaked havoc on the supply chain and hurt farmers, truckers and grocery stores. This time, he wants to legalize weed (sort of).

On Friday, the cowboy turned politician with a long list of controversies published an opinion piece that called for reforming state laws and expanding the state’s compassionate use program, also known as medical marijuana.

He pointed out that 39 states have “legalized cannabis for compassionate use” and another 18 states, “including conservative western states like Arizona, Montana, and Alaska, have legalized commercial cannabis sales to ALL adults.”

He hedged when it came to advocating for full legalization, writing, “While I am not sure that Texas is ready to go that far, I have seen firsthand the value of cannabis as medicine to so many Texans.”

Miller challenged the governor, Texas Legislature and others to “set aside our political differences to have an honest conversation about cannabis.”

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