Editorial Roundup: Texas

Austin American-Statesman. June 5, 2022.

Editorial: Gov. Abbott, call a special session on guns

A distraught Uvalde community spent last week grieving at the first funerals of children slaughtered in their classroom. Republican elected officials did what they always do after a mass shooting.

Nothing.

Oh sure, Republicans in Congress and the Texas Legislature condemned the Uvalde shooting, while pointing fingers at video games and too many school doors and a lack of mental health services. Some advocated for arming teachers and “hardening” schools. Gov. Greg Abbott resisted calls for a special session and instead called for legislative committees to study school safety. But few, if any, Republican politicians were honest enough to admit that it’s easy-to-access, ferociously powerful guns that are causing so much death and anguish in our communities.

As frightened, exasperated Americans once again demand at least modest gun reforms to help prevent more mass shootings, and as Uvalde continues to bury its children, Republican lawmakers say they’ll do nothing about guns because guns aren’t the problem.

We can’t let them get away with that. If elected officials won’t answer to the American people, we must vote them out. Clearly, Americans, and yes, even Texans, want modest gun restrictions like universal background checks, a higher minimum age for gun purchases and limits on magazine size. So what’s the holdup? At least some Republicans are bold enough to admit that their intransigence is a cold political calculation. Asked why he won’t budge on gun control after Uvalde, Congressman Kevin Cramer of North Dakota said Republican voters would “probably throw me out of office.”

That’s an infuriating thing to say when polls show widespread support for reforms, even among Republicans and gun owners, both nationally and in Texas. Americans are dying in mass shootings with maddening frequency, but timid Republicans won’t stand up to their base, blocking even the most modest proposals for reform.

Abbott, running for reelection in November, bellowed outrage at a news conference the day after the Uvalde massacre. Afterward, however, he rebuffed calls for a special session on gun reform. We applaud Democrats in the Texas House and Senate who are leading calls for the legislature to reconvene and address one of the most urgent issues of our time.

Abbott called special sessions last year to deal with voting restrictions and transgender kids in sports. Are the senseless, violent deaths of innocent Texans not as important? Texas has had more school shootings than any state. We’ve seen six such massacres during Abbott’s eight years in office, resulting in 92 innocent lives snuffed out. But instead of tightening access to guns, Abbott last year proudly signed a law allowing anyone over 18 to carry one without training or a permit.

Texans don’t need more studies. We don’t need more committees or roundtables like the one the governor convened -- and then ignored -- after the 2019 El Paso mass shooting. Gov. Abbott, call a special session immediately so lawmakers can hammer out a common-sense, bipartisan proposal to help keep our kids safe from gun violence.

Most Texans don’t want to ban guns; they just want sensible safeguards. A majority of Texans support raising the legal age to buy an assault rifle from 18 to 21. They also support red flag laws to allow seizure of guns from those a court deems dangerous. These and other proposals would cost far less than the billions it would take to turn our schools into fortresses, as Sen. Ted Cruz has advocated.

“The elites who dominate our culture, tell us that firearms lie at the root of the problem,” Cruz said during a dreadful speech to the NRA conference in Houston four days after the Uvalde massacre. “It’s a lot easier to moralize about guns and to shriek about those you disagree with politically, but it’s never been about guns.”

Does Cruz think Americans are stupid? Of course, it’s about guns.

The NRA and Republicans like Cruz dishonestly characterize every call for gun reform as an attack on the 2nd Amendment. They’re coming to take your guns, they say. Nonsense. Our elected officials can approve approve moderate gun restrictions without touching the Constitution. Congressional Republicans could come to the negotiating table with Democrats to enact at least some common-sense reforms before November.

Republican Sen. John Cornyn is at least willing to discuss gun reform and is leading Senate Republicans in early discussions with Democrats. That’s a small step in the right direction.

Texas lawmakers can do their part. Abbott should lead and call a special session, and lawmakers should adjourn only when gun reforms are enacted. Our lives, and the lives of our children and grandchildren, could depend on it.

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Dallas Morning News. June 5, 2022.

Editorial: School shooters and mental health. What is Texas actually doing?

Blanket statements diminish what should be a nuanced conversation about identifying and treating people with problematic behaviors.

The day after a gunman slaughtered 19 fourth-graders and two teachers at their elementary school in Uvalde, the father of one of the slain children appeared on national TV clinging to a framed photo of his daughter. Angel Garza said Amerie Jo was killed while trying to call 911 for help.

“How do you look at this girl and shoot her?” he sobbed.

Even in a world where depravity abounds, it is unfathomable to most of us that someone would point a rifle at children and execute them. Politicians casting about for answers usually turn to mental illness as a way to skirt discussions about gun control. Gov. Greg Abbott asserted at a news conference last week that “Anybody who shoots anybody else has a mental health challenge. Period.”

That response diminished what should be a nuanced conversation about how Texas can identify and treat people who may harm themselves or others, and how we keep guns out of their hands. Blanket comments about mass shooters’ mental health are also a disservice to the people in this country living with a mental illness: 1 in 5 Americans, a majority of whom are not violent.

A Secret Service analysis of 41 attacks in K-12 schools between 2008 and 2017 could be instructive to Texas lawmakers as they debate measures about school safety and mental health. The report, published three years ago, found that most school-age attackers like the Uvalde gunman share certain traits and circumstances.

All assailants had a source of social stress at least six months before the attacks, such as bullying or conflicts with romantic partners and family members. Nearly every attacker had experienced problems at home — their parents’ divorce or relatives using drugs, for example — and most of the attackers also had a history of school discipline.

Psychological, behavioral and neurological symptoms were cataloged in a majority of the young assailants. These symptoms ranged from depression to aggression to learning disabilities. But only 40% of the perpetrators had a documented mental health diagnosis before the attacks.

“When considering such signs and symptoms, it is possible that underlying situational factors (e.g., stressors the child is experiencing) may be the cause of the behavior, as opposed to a diagnosable disorder,” cautions the Secret Service report.

Now add weapons to this toxic mix of internal and external factors. Most of the perpetrators had access to firearms and used them in the attacks.

The Uvalde gunman, an 18-year-old man, had no mental health diagnosis history, though he had acted in troubling ways before he stormed Robb Elementary with a semi-automatic rifle. People who knew him said he abused animals, threatened girls online and had admitted once to cutting his own face.

It’s possible that the shooter had a mental illness that had gone undetected. But we can’t assume that all mass killers have clinical conditions that can be diagnosed. A steady diet of hateful ideology can fuel violence, along with antisocial traits such as anger and defiance that are cranked up to extremes.

People are complex, and so should be the system of mental health and behavioral interventions for children and young adults in Texas. Lawmakers must study whether schools are properly equipped to flag concerning behaviors and what the state can do to expand mental health screenings and treatment.

The Texas Legislature took important steps after the Santa Fe High School Shooting in 2018. It passed a law that requires every school to have a behavioral threat assessment team to identify students who could be threats so they can be referred to mental health professionals or to police. Lawmakers would be wise to investigate how that measure is working out in practice.

The Legislature in 2019 also created a mental health care consortium for children and teens. That consortium launched a telehealth network of medical and counseling professionals from a dozen medical schools, each one in charge of a region in Texas. The consortium offers this telehealth program for free to school districts, who can refer troubled children for services.

Roughly a quarter of Texas’ more than 1,200 districts are participating in the Texas Child Health Access Through Telemedicine program, or TCHATT, covering more than 2 million students. An official with the program told the Texas Tribune that the Uvalde school district was in line to be offered services before the shooting but had not been formally included because of staffing. The consortium is planning to ask for more resources in the next legislative session.

State legislators should also consider expanding other programs that research shows have been successful at improving outcomes for children and young adults with mental health symptoms.

For example, young people experiencing their first episode of psychosis — a disorder that causes hallucinations and delusions — can benefit from an intense care model known as coordinated specialty care, according to the Meadows Mental Health Policy Institute. A team of specialists works with the person and his or her family for two or three years to manage a treatment plan that may include medication, therapy and job or educational placements.

The earlier the treatment, the better the quality of life. In Texas, this type of care has been largely funded through federal grants. Experts say many services provided under this care model are not covered by private insurance, creating a barrier to access.

Another team-based care model for teens with significant mental health concerns is called multisystemic therapy, and it’s designed to heavily involve teens’ families in their treatment. This model has shown good results among juvenile offenders, but mental health care advocates say it should be expanded beyond the juvenile system. The goal, after all, is to keep teens out of trouble.

Gov. Abbott is right that we need to do something about mental health care in Texas. And we need to do something about the easy access to guns. Focusing on the former and ignoring the latter will lead to more deaths of children in schools where they should be safe.

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Fort Worth Star-Telegram. June X, 2022.

Editorial: Biden aims too high on guns. Texas GOP can go a better way — if party activists allow it

The fate of meaningful gun-law changes in Texas may lie in the hands of thousands of Republicans set to gather in Houston in a couple of weeks.

Texas GOP convention delegates and attendees are the inner core of the party. For decades, they’ve pushed state leaders to make it easier to acquire and carry guns. They represent the decisive voters in Republican primaries, often the only elections that matter in Texas, and they generally get their way.

Now, they have a chance to lead the way on reasonable changes that would help reduce gun violence without compromising Second Amendment rights, such as red-flag laws and a higher age threshold for rifle purchases. If these activists show a willingness to change, GOP leaders such as Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick might follow.

We’d love to think that the governor and lieutenant governor could lead the flock rather than needing to be pushed. But after previous mass shootings, each time either showed a willingness to explore even the slightest restrictions, the base balked, and Abbott and other leaders quickly retreated.

We’re not talking about extensive gun-control measures here. The agenda that President Joe Biden laid out Thursday night included some sensible ideas, such as support for red-flag laws, strengthening background checks and improving mental health care. But the rest was sweeping and unrealistic, including a renewed ban on “assault rifles.”

There is no feasible sweeping solution that will end attention-grabbing mass shootings or even the day-to-day gun violence that plagues our cities. But Texas can take action to save lives.

A red-flag law should be the highest priority. Allowing judges to approve orders to temporarily confiscate weapons from people who have expressed a willingness to kill or threatened specific violence could be enough to deter a massacre. Caution must be taken to protect individual rights, with an accessible appeal processes and measures to deter police and judges from rubber-stamping reasons to take weapons.

The common thread on so many mass shootings, including the school massacre in Uvalde, is that the shooter voiced clear threats, often online, and demonstrated instability. If actionable information gets to authorities, a red-flag law could make a difference.

After Uvalde, it’s clear that teenagers shouldn’t be able to obtain powerful rifles such as the AR-15. They cannot buy handguns, and there’s no good reason the rules on rifles and shotguns shouldn’t match. Of course, a shooter might still get one, if parents or other relatives don’t secure their guns. But we should never again see the spectacle of an 18-year-old who can’t even celebrate his birthday with a beer getting a new AR and taking it to a school.

Both these measures are in place, by the way, in Florida, often Texas’ main competition for which state can most readily address conservatives’ policy desires. If they’re good enough for Gov. Ron DeSantis, the apple of many GOP activists’ eyes, why couldn’t they work here?

One common reason Republicans oppose these modest measures is their concern that Democrats will use them as a step toward requiring national registration or even confiscation of guns. It’s as if they fear pulling one thread will unravel the entire Second Amendment.

Gun-control advocates aren’t helping, either. On Tuesday, Biden casually referred to 9mm handguns as “high-caliber” and suggested banning them. That’s the most popular caliber for handguns, and, while the White House walked the comment back, that kind of sloppy language doesn’t build the necessary trust for compromise.

Let’s hear no more talk, either, of banning semiautomatic weapons — those that fire a round with each pull of the trigger without other action. No doubt many are misusing the language and mean to target rifles. But half of all new handguns sold are semiautomatic; talk of that wide a ban won’t convince anyone to compromise.

The president was better in his speech Thursday, assuring that he does not advocate for “taking away anyone’s guns.” He even went so far as to say he “respects the culture and concerns and traditions” of American gun rights.

Texas Sen. John Cornyn is leading the way for Republicans as lawmakers negotiate on proposals such as stronger, broader background checks. Some Texas conservatives are never quite happy with Cornyn, but he’s a serious legislator who could help reach a deal on some modest improvements — if he’s got the political latitude to do so.

Abbott has taken only cautious steps since the Uvalde shooting, prodding the Legislature and state agencies on school safety and other issues. Those are important, but so are the guns.

If conservative activists in the GOP don’t give Abbott and others cover to act, they won’t. Abbott beat back two challengers from the right this year, and Patrick is generally the most popular elected Republican among the base. They could afford politically to step outside their comfort zone.

GOP activists can help encourage them and lead their party to sensible changes that don’t endanger gun rights. And they should.

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Houston Chronicle. June 1, 2022.

Editorial: Abbott passes the buck to the Legislature. What a sham.

Gov. Greg Abbott is urging leaders of the Legislature to name committees to study gun safety, mental health, social media, school safety and more in the wake of last week’s heartrending massacre at Robb Elementary School.

What a sham.

The governor alone has the authority to convene a session of the Legislature, and that’s precisely what he should do, as we argued in an editorial published Tuesday evening. All 13 Senate Democrats have joined that call as well, as have Republican Sens. Jeff Leach of Plano and Kel Seliger of Amarillo. Instead, he’s shirking his responsibility and asking Speaker of the House Dade Phelan and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who runs the Texas Senate, to name committees to look into what changes might be helpful.

Here’s a news flash for the governor, as if he didn’t already know: That’s been tried before and the result was zilch. Three years ago, Abbott punted in exactly the same way after 31 people were killed in shootings in El Paso and Odessa. The Legislature named committees. Hearings were held. Proposals debated — and all but ignored.

When lawmakers returned to Austin in 2021, priorities had shifted and attention had waned.

Could Abbott and others desperate to talk about anything other than gun safety — the 800-pound gorilla in every discussion of why mass shootings keep happening over and over — be counting on the same limited attention span this time, too?

Sure looks like it.

“It’s a screwed up mess and it starts with leadership at the top,” Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, told us Wednesday. “What if Abbott said, ‘I’m gonna call a special session and you’re not gonna leave until something gets done.’ He did it on voter suppression — ‘You’re not gonna leave until you pass these items?’ Does that jeopardize his reelection? I don’t think so. Does it jeopardize his running for president? I don’t think he ought to be worried about that.”

A special session is needed because reforms should be debated — and voted on. Now. This summer. Before attention to the crisis fades.

Texas stands nearly alone in its jaw-dropping capacity to ignore calls for change after each massacre.

After the Dec. 12 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary in Connecticut in 2012, the legislature gathered within weeks to begin debating gun reforms — and passed them by large margins.

After students were murdered by a lone gunman at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in 2018, Florida’s GOP-led legislature was already in session — and it quickly took up some of the same gun reform measures Texas should enact, but so far has steadfastly refused to even consider. Florida quickly adopted — and Republican Gov. Rick Scott quickly signed — a red flag law, which has been used to temporarily remove thousands of guns, news reports last week verified. It also raised the minimum age to buy rifles to 21 — sensibly matching the same restrictions already imposed by federal law on purchasing handguns.

The 13 Texas Senate Democrats who wrote Abbott to demand a special session say raising the age for some rifles to 21 is the least Texas could do. They also want universal background checks, a policy that would eliminate a loophole for private-party sales — a change Patrick once supported.

Instead, Abbott is muddying the water with ridiculous talking points about Texas history.

“Ever since Texas has been a state, an 18-year-old has been able to buy a long gun. It’s only in the last decade or two when we had school shootings. ... So for a century and a half, 18-year-olds could buy rifles and we didn’t have school shootings, but we do now. Maybe we’re focusing our attention on the wrong thing.”

Does he even believe what he says?

A century ago, long rifles meant hunting for rabbit and deer, or shotguns for sport. The AR-15 style rifle used in Uvalde — along with similar assault-style rifles used at Sandy Hook, at Parkland, in El Paso, in Odessa, in Sutherland Springs, in Las Vegas and in scores of scenes of slaughter — look and perform nothing like a “long rifle” of old.

The rifles the Uvalde shooter purchased in the days before his attack are anything but Davy Crockett’s trusty musket. They are capable of emptying a 30-round magazine in well under a minute. The Uvalde shooter carried a bag full of magazines with hundreds of rounds into the school.

Those kinds of weapons were banned for 10 years in 1994 — and despite loopholes in that law, mass shootings fell slightly during that decade, and tripled in the years after the ban expired.

Abbott’s poor attempt to link the refusal to even raise the minimum age to buy such weapons, never mind ban them, to a starry-eyed view of Texas history is gross.

The remedy to all this begins with leadership. Abbott should call the Legislature back and demand a debate — and ultimately a vote — on these and other needed reforms.

Or he can do what he did last time and let the reforms fizzle before they even get to the floor. And wait until another classroom of tears comes our way.

He was warned before. Last year, as the Legislature was prepared to vote for an expansion of gun rights, after having ignored gun safety reforms, Rep. Joe Moody, D-El Paso, addressed his colleagues. He recalled the pain of that day in 2019 when the El Paso Walmart turned into a scene of slaughter. “I was in church when I heard,” he began. “One day the tragedy will come to your community. ... I pray that it doesn’t, but it is. I wish it wasn’t, but it will.”

A year later, almost to the day, another shooter armed with another AR-15 rifle fulfilled that prophecy. How many more must be made to come true before Abbott and lawmakers come together to write a new future for our schools, our children, for our nation?

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San Antonio Express-News. June 2, 2022.

Editorial: Want to carry weapons? Do it like the military

One go-to argument some Second Amendment proponents cite against stronger gun safety laws is how our nation trusts 18-year-olds in the military to handle weapons of war.

The thinking goes something like this: Since 18-year-olds can vote and serve in the military, they should also have the right to own an assault-style rifle (no mention of drinking, renting cars or how the prefrontal cortex is still developing). We’ve heard this argument in the aftermath of Uvalde in which an 18-year-old gunman purchased a pair of AR-15-style rifles and murdered 19 children and two teachers.

So, let’s talk about how the military handles weapons.

Yes, the government does trust young people in the military with weapons. But that’s not the whole story. Unlike in the civilian world, the military vets people, oversees training and limits access to weapons.

Before anyone in the military handles a weapon, they endure aptitude testing, a physical exam, mental screening, a background check, a fitness assessment and a drug test.

They’ve also attested that they don’t have a misdemeanor or felony domestic violence conviction. The Lautenberg Amendment to the Gun Control Act of 1968 forbids anyone with one of these convictions to “ship, transport, possess, or receive firearms or ammunition.”

During training, military recruits learn how to safely handle and operate weapons under the guidance of experienced instructors with standardized syllabi. Those who don’t meet qualification standards get remedial training, and all must maintain recurrent qualifications.

Outside of a war zone, most people on a military base do not regularly carry or fire a weapon.

People on most bases are not as free to carry firearms as they are in many states. Only those with certain types of jobs, such as law enforcement, investigations, security or counterintelligence, are authorized to carry weapons on duty.

Commanders sign “arming letters” to give service members permission to carry weapons on duty. They also periodically review qualifications and training requirements, and can easily revoke arming privileges.

The military also maintains strict rules for the “safeguarding, storage, transport and carrying” of weapons.

Government firearms are stored in an armory when not in use, and there’s an accounting system for weapons and ammunition. Service members must store guns in locked cases when unattended or traveling.

Base commanders can permit someone to carry privately owned guns for personal protection unrelated to their work. However, they must submit a written request, be at least 21 years old, not be in trouble, demonstrate competency with the weapon, meet civilian legal requirements and not be intoxicated.

Joint Base San Antonio lets those who are eligible bring privately owned weapons “in a concealed carry configuration” onto base and store them in personal vehicles.

The vetting process is lengthy, requiring verifications, background checks, locking containers and signatures from commanders.

In other words, while on base, 18-year-olds who are vetted and trained do not have free rein with their privately owned weapons. But off base, 18-year-olds with no training or vetting are free to purchase and carry rifles.

We realize no safeguards will prevent all mass shootings — think of the shootings on Fort Hood in 2009 and 2014. But that’s not the point. Robust safeguards will undoubtedly prevent some forms of gun violence. After all, the military’s rules on weapons are likely written in blood from past tragedies.

We also know that the military spends a lot of time and resources on mitigating risk. And while certainly not perfect, when you consider the military’s demographics and responsibilities, it’s decent at managing risk.

Most Second Amendment advocates say they are patriots and military supporters. Many are veterans, and others like to wear military-style clothing or carry military-style weapons. If so, they should look to the military for gun safety laws.

The military requires vetting, age limits, background checks and training for its people. That’s not unconstitutional for the defenders of the Constitution, so why would it be for the rest of us?

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