AUSTIN, Texas (AP) – Texas Gov. Greg Abbott wrapped up three days of emotional meetings on school safety and mass shootings Thursday by speaking with survivors from last week’s mass shooting at a high school near Houston. But there’s little expectation that the staunch gun-rights supporter will push for major changes.
The Republican, who is campaigning for re-election, organized the mostly closed-door meetings shortly after eight students and two substitute teachers were fatally shot last week inside Santa Fe High School. Abbott said he wanted to find “swift and meaningful” ways to stop future shootings.
Most of his meetings centered on monitoring student mental health and security measures, such as “hardening” campuses with armed guards and teachers. Abbott hasn’t said when or what he’ll recommend to address those issues, but said Thursday that “we are going to do more than just talk, we are going to act.”
Abbott so far has ignored calls from a handful of state lawmakers from both parties to call the Legislature into special session to address gun laws, which is a sharp contrast to the response in Florida after a high school shooting in February killed 17 people. Three weeks after that massacre, Florida politicians, who were already in session, passed a gun-control package after a lobbying campaign led by student survivors of the attack.
Lawmakers aren’t scheduled to meet until January 2019 in Texas, a state that embraces its gun-friendly reputation and has more than 1.2 million people licensed to carry handguns. And unlike the students in Florida, several students at Santa Fe High School have been vocal opponents of increased gun control, including some of those who were invited to meet Abbott on Thursday.
The only tweaks to gun safety Abbott mentioned as possibilities this week were stronger laws on gun storage and reporting of lost or stolen weapons, and quicker reporting to law enforcement when a court order denies someone access to a gun.
Abbott has signed bills in recent years that reduce the cost and training needed for a handgun license and expanded where handguns can be legally carried. During a National Rifle Association meeting earlier this month, Abbott said the violence problem isn’t caused by guns but by “hearts without God.”
This week’s meetings included representatives of both gun rights and gun control groups. However, Alice Tripp, legislative director of the Texas Rifle Association, an affiliate of the NRA, said her group found “no common ground” on gun restrictions and would be cautious of anything that would deny access to buy or own guns.
“No common ground except to say that public safety is very important and no one supports the criminal misuse of anything,” Tripp said. “Crimes are not stopped by laws.”
Thursday’s meeting included more than 30 students, families and staff members from Santa Fe High School, as well as two survivors of the November church shooting in rural Sutherland Springs, Texas, that left more than two dozen people dead. Stephen Willeford, the church neighbor and former NRA gun instructor who was hailed as a hero for grabbing a rifle and firing back at the attacker, also attended the meeting.
The issues that seemed to get most of Abbott’s attention – better security, tracking student mental health and school counseling – would cost money, and the state’s public schools are already living under strained budgets.
“If they are serious about making schools more secure, they need to quit talking about arming teachers and start appropriating the state funds necessary to hire more campus police and install more security safeguards in school buildings,” including metal detectors, said Clay Robison, spokesman for the Texas State Teachers Association.
Texas Democrats called the meetings little more than theatrics for the governor. The meetings were mostly closed to the public and didn’t address major gun restrictions.
“Greg Abbott’s track record is that nothing of substance will come out of this that keeps weapons out of the hands of school shooters,” said Manny Garcia, deputy director of the state Democratic Party. “Texans need leadership at a time when they are afraid to send their kids to school.”
Rhonda Hart, a military veteran whose daughter Kimberly Vaughan was killed in the Santa Fe shooting, has been outspoken this week on the need for more gun control. She wasn’t invited to the meetings this week.
“You should have to wait a week, have counseling and walk through lines of protesters who tell you you’re a murderer” to buy a gun, Hart said.