Politics

Why the Texas Government’s Response to Uvalde Was Different

Though not in the way gun control advocates would prefer.

Greg Abbott speaks into a microphone.
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott speaks during a press conference in Uvalde, Texas, on Friday. Chandan Khanna/AFP via Getty Images

I caught Lauren McGaughy, an Austin-based investigative reporter for the Dallas Morning News, as she was preparing to cover the National Rifle Association convention in Houston last week. Before that, she’d been covering the Uvalde school shooting. When I asked her how many mass shootings she’d reported on in the past few years, she had a list ready: the shooting at a Sutherland Springs church in 2017, the political fallout after a 2018 shooting at a Santa Fe high school. McGaughy and her colleagues even created an interactive map of every mass shooting in Texas since 1966, which have taken place everywhere from churches to restaurants and even a roller rink. McGaughy’s background helped her realize something was different about the Texas government’s response to the Uvalde massacre. After the Santa Fe shooting, Republican politicians, for a brief period of time, seemed to say enough. Gov. Greg Abbott suggested he’d be in favor of a “red flag law” that would restrict firearm access for those in crisis or who have a mental disorder. But “this time around, there just doesn’t seem to be any discussion, at least here in Texas, on the ground of gun restriction laws,” McGaughy told me. Instead, when Abbott held a press conference in the hours after the shooting, he talked about “mental health.” On Tuesday’s episode of What Next, I spoke with McGauhy about Texas’ history of mass shootings, and how the state’s response has shifted. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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Lauren McGaughy: In 2018, seeing Republican leaders of the state or openly discussing some kind of restriction on guns … it was unusual. But the local arm of the NRA came in, and it’s always been against red flag laws. Then Abbott said didn’t see a ton of support in the Legislature, so it kind of petered out. In the moment, everyone feels like there needs to be a serious talk about solutions. But the news cycle moves on, something else happens, or the moment passes and we end up further loosening gun laws in the state rather than putting any real restrictions in place.

Mary Harris: Just a year or so after the Santa Fe shooting, people were killed at that Walmart in El Paso. Then a few weeks after that, people were killed in a shooting spree in Midland and Odessa. It was another moment where the governor and even his lieutenant governor, who’s more conservative than Abbott, started talking about background checks for stranger-to-stranger gun sales. That also seemed like a big step when it happened. Did you think that maybe this was going to change things?

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When Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick said he would be interested in discussing stranger-to-stranger background checks, yes, I thought this could be a moment where things could change. But then that, too, also died out. People were riled up and passionate, and then enough time passed without the support they wanted from the Republicans in the Legislature. Plus, we don’t have that many restrictions left to loosen up.

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Do you need a license or a permit or anything?

In 2021, they did away with requiring licensing to carry a handgun in public. That was one of the biggest restrictions that was still on the books. So now we have unlicensed open carry of handguns and unlicensed open carry of AR-15-style rifles and the like. Then there were a couple other things that were tweaked: State legislators made it easier to carry a gun during an actual disaster, after Hurricane Harvey, and they made it easier to carry a gun into a house of worship, after Sutherland Springs. If you want to carry a gun into a church or synagogue, it’s just understood to be legal, unless there is an explicit restriction from the faith leader of that congregation.

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The response to a church shooting was more guns in church.

That’s right. Sutherland Springs is not even a town—it’s an unincorporated area and very conservative and religious. There weren’t many calls for gun control coming from the people of the area who were affected by the shooting—they weren’t saying that this is the time to crack down on guns. In fact, the two guys who chased down the shooter ended up becoming big gun legislation advocates. One of the now goes and speaks about the need for “good guys with guns.” So it’s important to note that each of these communities so radically different, and the demands of those communities may differ may differ as well.

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Are looser gun laws what the people in Texas want?

Well, which constituents? The ones who vote in a Republican primary would probably oppose gun restrictions, and frankly, those are the ones with the political power, because they get out and vote, and keep Republicans in power. If you look at the polling in Texas, there was one last year that showed that a majority of Texans did not want permitless carry. But if you look at the party-by-party breakdown, you’re going to see that divide between Republicans and Democrats. If you break it down even more and you look at primary voters— when you’re talking about Republican leaders in Texas, that’s who their constituency is—if they don’t want more restrictive gun laws, then it’s probably not going to become something serious in the legislature unless there is some other kind of outside force pushing it.

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On the other hand: In Texas, teachers can already be armed. The state has tried to expand that program in the past. But the thing is, not a lot of teachers want to do it. So it’s not super popular. Right now, we have tens of thousands of schools, and the state only has 256 school marshals—armed teachers and personnel. It’s not going to suddenly explode across the state.

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It was interesting to hear the governor talk about mental health because a lot of people criticized that thought, noting that Texas didn’t expand Medicaid and didn’t make health care more available to its citizens when it could have. So the idea that solving mental health might solve this crisis of shootings, it’s a little hard to connect those dots when you’re not funding mental health in the first place.

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There was a Houston Chronicle investigation last year about how the state has approached mental health and funding across the board, for kids, adults, everything. The paper found that the state hasn’t adequately dedicated itself to this problem. It’s an incredibly complex one, but there have been proposals that haven’t really seemed to work. These for-profit companies will come in with an app or a software product and say, This will allow you to respond more quickly to a school shooting, or This app will allow you to monitor social media for signs of a student who may be struggling. None of those things have really panned out, but the state has invested in them. In fact, Uvalde’s school district had spent state money on a product to monitor social media. Its purpose was to catch signs of someone struggling, to catch pictures of guns—but this was not caught.

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After your own experience with a mass shooting back in 2013, you talked about wanting to join the growing ranks of people determined to start figuring out how we deal with gun violence. It’s almost a decade later. I feel like. From the perspective of a journalist, especially a journalist who’s covered shootings in Texas in particular, do you feel like we’re any closer to figuring it out?

I mean, if you just look at what’s been happening, you would have to say no.

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