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Politics

Texas Democrats claim GOP proposal on school safety ignored one key issue: access to guns

People visit memorials for victims of the shooting in Uvalde, Texas.
Michael M. Santiago
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Getty Images
People visit a memorial for victims of the shooting in Uvalde.

A proposal from the state’s Republican leadership aimed at curbing gun violence is being called a mirage by Texas Democrats, constructed to take attention away from the real issue: the proliferation of firearms.

Monday afternoon Texas House Speaker Dade Phelan proposed allocating tens of millions of state dollars to boost mental health and school safety measures.

“Like you I believe our respective chambers have the obligation to take immediate, concrete action with the goal of making our schools as safe as possible before the start of the upcoming school year,” Phalen wrote to Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick.

The speaker’s proposal includes about $19 million for silent, panic-alert technology for public school districts; about $7 million in funds for the Texas School Safety Center for training and assessments of school safety plans; and $7 million so peace officers, cadets and school resource officers will Advanced Law Enforcement Rapid Response Training at Texas State University.

The proposal also includes tens of millions for mental health programs, including $30 million for additional bed space in pediatric health centers; $37.5 million a year to expand telemedicine for students; and about $600,000 a year for multisystemic therapy treatment, which Phelan describes as “evidence based, targeted intervention” that reduces the risk of violence by 75%.

Phalen’s pitch to Patrick comes after the lieutenant governor proposed using $50 million to purchase bullet-proof shields for school police officers.

In response the Texas Democratic Party said one major item was missing from Phalen’s wish list: gun control.

“In this three-and-a-half page letter outlining the ways the Speaker wants to address school safety, the word ‘firearm’ only appears once – in passing, at the end of the letter. Texas Republicans are moving mountains to be able to avoid the actual issue at hand: guns,” Jamarr Brown, the co-executive director of the party, said. “The fact of the matter is that guns are the issue. Yes, we need more mental health support and our schools need to be properly upgraded – but those are distractions from the issue at hand: that an 18-year old was able to legally purchase a weapon of war and use it to slaughter a classroom of children and teachers.”

Democrats and gun-reform advocates have instead called for Gov. Greg Abbott to call lawmakers back to Austin for a special session of the Legislature in the wake of last month’s mass shooting at Uvalde’s Robb Elementary School, where an 18-year-old gunman killed 19 children and two teachers.

The governor is the only one who can call a special session. In the immediate aftermath of the Uvalde shooting, Abbott said all “options were on the table” – though he made similar remarks after the August 2019 shooting in El Paso where 23 people were killed (Lawmakers that year did not reconvene early and instead passed more liberal gun laws in the subsequent 2021 session.)

The Texas Legislature would not need to reconvene early to fund Phalen and Patrick’s proposals because officials can reallocate funds through budget execution authority, which allows the state to reallocate existing funds for emergencies between legislative sessions.

Cornyn defends scope of U.S. Senate proposal

The state-level funding package was proposed a day after U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, announced congressional Republicans and Democrats agreed to framework for a federal legislative package on mental health funding and some firearm safety measures.

The package would provide funding for mental health resources at the state level and incentivize states to pass “red flag” laws, which are designed to keep weapons out of the hands of people who pose a threat to themselves or others. The proposal also includes expanding background checks for gun purchasers between 18 and 21 according to a press release from Cornyn’s office. It would also provide funding for school safety resources, including school violence prevention and training for students and personnel, and clarify the definition of a federally licensed firearm dealer to reduce the number of sellers who evade licensing requirements.

But the package does not include measures some advocates are calling for, like raising the age limit for gun purchases, universal background checks or banning assault-style weapons. Cornyn said those measures and other proposals championed by Democrats were not included because it would stall the agreement, which has the support of at least 10 Republicans.

“These are ideas we rejected in the bipartisan agreement on principles for gun-related legislation announced yesterday,” Cornyn tweeted. Why? Because we knew that if they were included, the bill would not command the votes needed for passage.

In a floor speech on Monday, Cornyn reiterated that his goals also include not infringing on current the rights of law-abiding gun owners.

“I said at the onset I would not support any additional restrictions on the rights of law-abiding gun owners,” he said. “There are hundreds of millions of guns in America today. And the vast majority, almost all, of those gun owners are responsible. They are not a threat to public safety.”

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Got a tip? Email Julián Aguilar at jaguilar@kera.org.You can follow Julián on Twitter @nachoaguilar.

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