Gun-loving Texas struggles to find ways to improve school safety

Greg Zanis lined up crosses he built in front of Santa Fe High School in Santa Fe, Texas, on Monday. The crosses are a memorial to the victims of last Friday’s shooting.
Scott Olson/Getty Images
Greg Zanis lined up crosses he built in front of Santa Fe High School in Santa Fe, Texas, on Monday. The crosses are a memorial to the victims of last Friday’s shooting.

AUSTIN, Texas — Republican Governor Greg Abbott on Tuesday will kick off a series of round-table discussions on ways to improve school safety after the killing of eight students and two teachers at Santa Fe High School near Houston.

Abbott said last week that he wants to find ways to keep guns away from those who pose an ‘‘immediate danger to others.’’

But the state’s 20-year dominance by the Republican Party all but guarantees the meetings will be dominated by calls to boost school security and ‘‘harden’’ campuses — an idea backed by the NRA — instead of demands for gun restrictions, said Cal Jillson, political science professor at Southern Methodist University.


That’s in sharp contrast to the response to the Feb. 14 shooting rampage at a high school in Parkland, Fla., that left 17 dead. Three weeks after the blood bath, Florida politicians defied the NRA and passed a gun control package after a lobbying campaign led by student survivors of the attack.

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‘‘The difference in Texas is the Republican Party is in complete control. It is unchallenged at the state level,’’ Jillson said. ‘‘Even the young people from Santa Fe are not full-throated advocates of gun control to keep the children safe.’’

Texas has more than 1.2 million licensed handgun owners who can openly carry their weapons in public. The state hosted the National Rifle Association’s annual meeting two weeks ago.

Until Monday, the governor’s reelection campaign was planning to raffle off a shotgun to raise funds. The campaign created its contest in early May, well before Santa Fe became the nation’s latest scene of bloodshed inside a school. Dimitrios Pagourtzis, 17, has been charged with capital murder in the killings.

Instead of a shotgun, the campaign will now give away a $250 gift certificate. “We changed it because of the events on Friday,” said John Wittman, a campaign spokesman.


The timing of the contest irked gun control advocates, including the Austin chapter of March for Our Lives, the student organization that formed after the Parkland shooting in February

“To put it bluntly, we find this a disgusting display of disregard of the toll gun violence takes and an absolute failure to respect your constituents in the wake of the Santa Fe shootings,” the group said Saturday on Twitter.

Callie Wylie, a 16-year-old Santa Fe High student who dropped off flowers Monday at a memorial for the shooting victims, said the violence is not a ‘‘gun problem.’’

‘‘Obviously things need to change. Something needs to happen. This has happened way too much,’’ Wylie said. ‘‘But I don’t think at this time people need to be pushing politics on us and telling us, ‘Oh, this is gun control.’ ’’

Sentiments like those could give Abbott political cover if his round-table discussions don’t lead to major changes.


Gun control advocates around the country have long pressed for such measures as expanded background checks and a ban on assault rifles and high-capacity magazines, but such measures would probably have had no effect on the Santa Fe High shooting.

Abbott’s round-table discussions are expected to include lawmakers, educators, students, parents, gun-rights advocates, and survivors of the November church shooting in Sutherland Springs, Texas, that killed two dozen people.

Tuesday’s meeting will include officials from school districts that arm some teachers or contract with local police for security. The governor’s office said most of the meeting will be held in private.

Abbott and Texas Republicans have embraced a steady relaxation of guns laws in recent years. Since 2013, Texas has reduced the cost and hours of training needed to be licensed to carry a handgun, allowed ‘‘open carry’’ for handgun license holders, and allowed concealed handguns in college classrooms and dorms.

In 2015, Abbott tweeted that it was ‘‘embarrassing’’ that Texas lagged behind California in gun sales. In 2017, he bragged about his accuracy with a pistol at a shooting range.

After the Florida massacre, President Trump organized discussions on how to prevent school shootings and at least mentioned the idea of limiting gun sales, though little concrete came out of those. Abbott so far has committed to even less.

Texas holds primary runoffs Tuesday, meanwhile, and the Santa Fe shooting is not expected to be a deciding factor in any major race.

Former Dallas County sheriff Lupe Valdez, who is favored to win Tuesday’s Democratic gubernatorial runoff and face Abbott in November, has called for stricter background checks and closing of gun sale loopholes. But she was quick to add: ‘‘That doesn’t mean I’m against guns. I’ve worn a gun over 40 years. It means I’m against stupidity.’’

In a letter to the governor on Monday, Democratic state lawmakers urged Abbott to consider gun control measures that failed to pass in previous sessions.

Still, Lizzie Pannill Fletcher, a lawyer who is favored to win a runoff for the Democratic nomination in a Republican-held congressional district in Houston, refrained from criticizing the governor for not doing more than organizing discussions.

‘‘I hope that these discussions move us closer to real reform,’’ Fletcher said Monday. ‘‘Our lives depend on it.’’