Something Has Changed in the Gun Debate in Texas

Something Has Changed in the Gun Debate in Texas

Texas Governor Greg Abbott has discovered a more palatable response to mass shootings, but how far beyond “thoughts and prayers” is he willing to go to curb gun violence?

Thoughts and prayers aren’t good enough following Texas’ latest mass shooting, not even for some of the state’s gun-loving officials.

“We need to do more than just pray for the victims and their families,” Governor Greg Abbott declared at a press conference on Friday, just hours after a shotgun- and pistol-wielding teenager forced his way inside a Santa Fe high school art class and began firing, ultimately killing 10 people, eight of whom were his classmates. The tragedy was so fresh that Abbott briefed reporters on basic details of the crime, suspect and police search for explosive devices that the shooter had left behind — that is, after the governor announced his new plan to address “school safety” in Texas.

Abbott’s plan centers on a series of “roundtable discussions” he’s hosting at the Capitol this week with school officials, shooting survivors, gun control advocates and “those who hold the Second Amendment right in high esteem.” The governor said those meetings, which are closed to the public and press, should help state leaders arrive at “laws that protect Second Amendment rights, but at the same time ensure that our communities, and especially our schools, are safer places.”

For Abbott, even that nebulous call to action is a departure from previous shootings. After a gunman killed 26 churchgoers in Sutherland Springs last November, the governor dodged questions about gun policy with soliloquies on the biblical battle between good and evil. It was the deadliest mass shooting in modern Texas history, and Abbott responded by invoking the Dark Ages and Hitler as a sign that evil has “permeated” the world.

The typical reactions from Texas’ leading politicians after a mass shooting — from Senator Ted Cruz excoriating the media for asking about gun laws, to Attorney General Ken Paxton, the state’s top law enforcement official, questioning whether laws really matter and predicting that “this is going to happen again” — have set the bar so low that anything beyond “thoughts and prayers” now looks like progress.

Governor Greg Abbott, his wife, Cecilia, and Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick prepare to place flowers at Santa Fe High School.  Jennifer Reynolds/The Galveston County Daily News via AP

Friday’s shooting does, however, appear to have cracked open at least some space for dialogue with Abbott. Speaking on Democracy Now! on Monday, Ed Scruggs with Texas Gun Sense insisted that common ground does exist between gun control advocates and the state’s Republican leadership in the form of laws to improve background checks, mandate safer gun storage and establish “Red Flag” policies that make it easier to confiscate weapons from people viewed as threats — all ideas Abbott teased in his press conference on Friday after the bloodshed in Santa Fe.  

“We have received bipartisan support in private conversation on those issues, we just have an intractable entrenched political system in our Legislature,” Scruggs said.

Advocates for stricter gun laws tend to see Abbott’s shifting tone as evidence that the groundswell of student activism, walkouts and marches sparked by the February school shooting in Parkland, Florida, are finally changing the discussion, even in the gun-totingest of states. Perhaps Abbott read the recent poll that indicates more than half of registered Texas voters support stricter gun laws. Or maybe the governor is learning that immediate, if vague, calls for action are a much more palatable reaction to mass death than, say, the biblical version of “shit happens.”

But as for actual action, in the form of new laws, it remains unclear how anything that might be construed as “gun control” could ever pass muster with Abbott, who last year joked about shooting reporters while signing a bill to make handgun licenses easier to obtain. Who knows what could clear Texas’ GOP-dominated Legislature, either, which in recent years has passed gun laws allowing everything from firearms on public college and university campuses to the open carrying of handguns. After the Parkland shooting, the Florida Legislature passed a slew of new gun laws, including raising the minimum age to purchase a firearm to 21. The NRA sued Florida after the state’s governor signed the legislation. Abbott, who spoke at the organization’s convention in Dallas earlier this month, blaming gun violence on “hearts without God,” clearly isn’t looking to spar with the NRA.

The kind of swift action that followed the Parkland shooting seems unlikely from Texas’ part-time Legislature. Since Santa Fe (mass shooting no. 101 in the United States this year), Texas Democrats, and even a couple of Republicans, have urged Abbott to call a special session on school shootings. Otherwise lawmakers can’t do much until they reconvene in January 2019 — an entire election, and who knows how many shootings, from now.

Meanwhile, other conservative leaders in Texas have shoehorned a hodgepodge of ideologies into the gun debate, in the process cooking up some very creative explanations for mass shootings. Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick, who was widely panned for his war-on-doors rant in the immediate aftermath of the Santa Fe shooting, went on ABC this weekend to blame gun violence on everything from Facebook and Twitter to abortion and the “breakup of families.”

After the shooting in Santa Fe, officials for and against stricter gun laws seem to agree that Texas should, at the very least, enhance security at schools. Former Democratic lawmaker and Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner, who’s called for “pragmatic gun control” and whose police chief is openly fighting with the NRA on Twitter right now, recently demanded that the state “Make our schools as secure as airports and government buildings.”

Is Abbott’s new willingness to discuss guns just a better form of damage control? We’ll have to see how the discussions on “school safety” that he’s initiated evolve, and whether they ever include anything beyond just further militarizing schools. But at least for the moment, the political climate has changed. This week, Abbott canceled a shotgun giveaway raffle that was part of his re-election campaign. Because who brings a shotgun to a gun safety fight?