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12.21.22 – Texas Tribune

The committee urged lawmakers to pay special attention to rural areas. But its lone proposal on guns would not have made a difference in the Robb Elementary shooting.

A special Texas Senate committee that convened in the wake of the Uvalde school shooting made a series of policy recommendations Wednesday regarding school and gun safety, mental health, social media and police training.

In an 88-page report, the Special Committee to Protect All Texans acknowledged “more must be done to ensure the safety of Texas school children” in the wake of the May massacre, which killed 19 students and two teachers. The report was based in part on two days of testimony from police, mental health and education professionals, and gun safety advocates in June.

The committee made a single recommendation related to guns: Make purchasing a gun for someone who is barred from owning one a state-level felony. Straw purchases of firearms — when a person stands in to buy a gun for someone who is prohibited from having one — are illegal under federal law, though the committee expressed concern that U.S. attorneys too seldom prosecute offenders.

Gov. Greg Abbott in 2019 recommended banning straw purchases under state law in a report his office produced after the El Paso Walmart mass shooting. But the Legislature failed to pass it.

Such a law would not have prevented the Uvalde shooter from purchasing guns. He legally purchased two semiautomatic rifles in the days before the shooting.

On school safety, the committee proposed the creation of review teams to conduct on-site vulnerability assessments of school campuses and share the results with school leaders. It also suggested additional funding for grants to improve security at individual campuses based on needs.

It called for adding training centers for the school marshal program, through which teachers and staff can become certified to carry guns on campus. Since the program debuted in 2013, just 84 of the state’s more than 1,200 districts have joined.

On mental health care, the committee recommended expanding access to the state’s telemedicine system for mental health to all school districts within a “reasonable time frame.” It also implored lawmakers to look for ways to increase the number of mental health professionals to support this expansion, such as allowing practitioners to volunteer; offering loan repayment benefits for professionals, especially in rural areas; offering paid fellowship and internships; and streamlining licensure requirements.

The committee also recommended the creation of a state database of community inpatient beds, including those for pediatric patients, noting that local governments and police “incur significant costs transporting patients who need immediate hospitalization.”

Regarding social media, the committee said the Legislature should encourage the Department of Public Safety and local districts to increase their use of iWatch Texas, the state’s suspicious activity reporting network. This system is intended to provide a single hub statewide for law enforcement to vet threats.

On police training, the committee recommended adding Advanced Law Enforcement Rapid Response Training to the state’s basic officers course. It suggested the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement drop its own requirement for active-shooter training to avoid a redundancy that is “unnecessary and wastes time and resources.” School districts should be required to share their emergency operations plans with local law enforcement, the committee said, and police should be able to digitally access the mental health records of people they encounter, a resource that has proven valuable for jailers as they evaluate prisoners.

The committee acknowledged that some lawmakers have proposed raising the age to purchase certain assault-style weapons from 18 to 21 years old, arguing that most attacks on schools have been perpetrated by teenagers. The report noted, however, a “strong lack of consensus” among committee members on the idea. Abbott has also said he opposes raising the age to purchase certain rifles to 21.

In a letter appended to the report, Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, endorsed the straw purchase ban. But he said the Legislature should consider other gun-related proposals Texans have expressed support for. He cited a Quinnipiac University poll from earlier this year that found 73% of Texas voters supported raising the minimum age to buy any gun to 21 years old. That same poll found 68% of Texas voters supported so called red-flag laws, which aim to take guns away from people deemed dangerous.

Sen. Roland Gutierrez, one of the most vocal critics of how the Department of Public Safety contributed to the flawed police response to the shooting, said he welcomed the proposals the committee recommended. But the San Antonio Democrat criticized Abbott for spending billions on his border security initiative, Operation Lone Star, when keeping schoolchildren safe should come first, he said.

“Do we need to spend more money on mental health in Texas? Absolutely. Do we need to some more on school hardening? … Absolutely,” Gutierrez said. “But the $4 billion we put down on border security should have been about school. Everything we do is about priorities.”

House Speaker Dade Phelan, R-Beaumont, declined to comment on the proposals. Abbott did not respond.

The legislative session begins Jan. 10.