Politics

Abbott calls on Texas House and Senate to form special committees on school safety, guns, mental health

The governor’s orders to the Texas House and Senate come as Democrats and gun-reform groups are instead urging lawmakers to immediately return to Austin for a special legislative session addressing gun laws.

Christopher Connelly

Gov. Greg Abbott on Wednesday ordered the Texas House and Senate to convene special legislative committees to address school and gun safety in the wake of last week's school shooting in Uvalde.

In a letter to Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and House Speaker Dade Phelan, Abbott said the committees should examine what state resources are currently available to school districts and make recommendations to Abbott and the Legislature "so that meaningful action can be made on" school safety, mental health, social media, gun safety and police training, according to the letter.

"As Texans mourn the tragedy that occurred at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde last week, we as a State must reassess the twin issues of school safety and mass violence," Abbott wrote. "As leaders, we must come together at this time to provide solutions to protect all Texans."

The instructions come as Democrats are instead urging Abbott to call a special session of the Texas Legislature to address gun violence. Laws can only be passed by the Legislature and the state's governor is the only official who can call lawmakers back to Austin during the interim period between regular sessions. Lawmakers are not scheduled to reconvene at the Capitol until early January 2023.

Abbott has so far resisted those calls and has pushed back against considering tighter gun legislation or age restrictions for firearm purchases.

"The ability of an 18-year-old to buy a long gun has been in place in the state of Texas for more than 60 years," Abbott said Friday. "And why is it that for the majority of those 60 years we did not have school shootings? And why is it that we do now?"

Abbott has instead placed an emphasis on mental health challenges and how they contribute to mass violence, though he said early on that there is not evidence the Uvalde gunman, 18-year-old Salvador Ramos, had a history of mental health issues.

Some Texas Democrats responded to Abbott Wednesday, saying committees aren't enough. Several re-urged Abbott to call lawmakers back to Austin.

"The time for action is now. We don’t need more roundtables, interim hearings, special committees, or talk. We need a #specialsession," tweeted state Sen. Cesar Blanco, D-El Paso. (Blanco is a former Texas House member whose district in 2019 included the Walmart shopping center.)

The Texas State Teachers Association also called for immediate action in a statement that criticized the formation of more committees as "very weak."

"Committees and other groups have studied school safety before, including after the Santa Fe High School shootings in 2018 and the El Paso Walmart shootings in 2019, and schools obviously aren't safe from mass shooters," the group said in a statement. "This is because the governor and legislators refuse to address the real issue and enact reasonable gun laws to keep guns out of the hands of people who shouldn't have them."

In the days after the shooting, Abbott did say that "all options are on the table." He has used similar language after mass shootings in the past, including at Santa Fe high school in 2018 when 10 people were killed and the shooting at an El Paso Walmart in 2019 that ended with 23 people dead and nearly two dozen injured. Instead of a special session however, Abbott convened roundtable discussions after those tragedies and instructed members to come up with ideas for lawmakers to consider. Less than a month after the El Paso shooting, a gunman killed seven people in a shooting spree in Odessa.

Lawmakers did pass two related laws in 2021: one that established a statewide active shooter alert system and another that made it a state crime to give false information when purchasing a weapon.

Also on Wednesday Abbott asked the director of the Texas School Safety Center to conduct reviews "to ensure all Texas public schools are following the appropriate procedures to maximize school safety."

The reviews call for unannounced audits of school districts' safety plans and "random-intruder" protocols, the governor stated in a letter to center director Kathy Martinez-Prather.

"Staff should approach campuses to find weak points and how quickly they can penetrate buildings without being stopped. This will help determine if schools are prepared to implement and follow the (emergency operations plans) they have already submitted to the state," Abbott wrote. "This will improve accountability and ensure school districts are following the plans they create."

The Texas School Safety Center is housed at Texas State University in San Marcos and is tasked with, among other things, school safety initiatives, according to its website.

KERA News is made possible through the generosity of our members. If you find this reporting valuable, consider making a tax-deductible gift today. Thank you. Got a tip? Email Julián Aguilar at jaguilar@kera.org.You can follow Julián on Twitter @nachoaguilar.

Copyright 2022 KERA. To see more, visit KERA.

Subscribe to Today in Houston

Fill out the form below to subscribe our new daily editorial newsletter from the HPM Newsroom.

* required