The Texas Senate committee formed after the Uvalde mass shooting held its first public hearings this week.
For anyone hoping something substantial will be done before the start of the school year in August, none of it instilled confidence.
Tuesday’s 12-hour hearing began with Republican Chair Robert Nichols acknowledging that this is the third special committee formed to address mass shootings in recent years.
Nichols asked members to refrain from having “specific policy outcomes in mind” as they work, a less-than-subtle knock to firearm-focused Senate Democrats and a request that asked members to operate like newborns, discovering the world for the first time instead of seasoned policy makers, here again, for the third time.
After some opening comments by members, including Sen. Bob Hall who said the shooter could have done as much harm with a baseball bat, the committee brought out its first witness, Department of Public Safety Director Steve McCraw.
McCraw described the police response in Uvalde as an “abject failure” and “antithetical” to training officers had received since Columbine.
“The officers had weapons, the children had none,” McCraw said. “The officers had body armor, the children had none. The officers had training, the subject had none. One hour, 14 minutes and 8 seconds. That’s how long children waited, and the teachers waited, in Room 111 to be rescued.”
McCraw suggested much if not all of the blame lay with Uvalde ISD Police Chief Pete Arredondo who was the incident commander during the school shooting.
At this, Republican members finally began to deliver their harshest words yet at the police response which had so far been praised by state leaders, particularly Gov. Greg Abbott in the hours and days after the shooting.
The majority of what McCraw revealed was not particularly new. Extensive reporting had already mapped out an approximate timeline of the shooting and the officers’ delay in breaching the classroom. But the new details humiliated them further, revealing that the doors to the classroom were never, and could not be, locked.
The remainder of the hearings dealt with how future school shootings could be prevented.
Members focused their questions on the implementation and scale of programs and grants from the 2019 legislative session that funded school safety to the tune of more than $300 million.
Much of it came from Senate Bill 11, the school safety bill that provided $100 million for schools to “harden” their infrastructure and add more safety and security equipment. The legislation also created the state’s Child Mental Health Care Consortium, which helps connect at-risk children to behavioral experts and mental health care. The rest came from a supplemental appropriations bill that delivered another $100 million for school safety.
The work detailed by the recently formed consortium was impressive, but it did not seem to command nearly as much Republican attention as solutions relating to school safety: fortified doors, open-door sweeps, panic locks, more effective lockdowns, arming teachers and staff, and more active shooter training.
Some lawmakers gave hints as to where legislation might go next outside of school safety and mental health. Sen. Donna Campbell suggested violent video games might be responsible for encouraging school shootings. Sen. Charles Perry said the lack of respect for teachers could be to blame along with social media which encouraged mass shooters to seek notoriety.
Somewhere in between DPS Chief McCraw bringing out a school door as a prop and Senator Perry arguing that any student who leaves a door open should be expelled, did it become clear the absurdity of the hearings and the lengths its showrunners went to not mention guns.
Hopelessly, Republicans appeared more enthused with the idea of fortifying every building in the state than tackling gun violence with gun-related laws.
Testimony relating to gun reform came only at the end, squeezed into a two-hour window at the end of the two-day public hearings. Those testifying for firearm-related solutions — Texas Gun Sense Executive Director Nicole Golden and Sandy Hook Promise VP of State Policy Aurora Vasquez — proposed extreme risk protection orders (better known as red flag laws) and raising the minimum age to purchase an AR-15 to 21 years of age.
“Solutions that only address mental illness and school security are not adequate alone,” Golden testified, invalidating much of the committee’s work so far. “Even with more funds and better enforcement of policies, experts have said there’s no indication that intensifying school security has prevented violence.”
The committee’s work will ultimately only result in recommendations, not legislation, and what’s more, without the governor calling a special special for lawmakers to return to Austin during the interim no laws will be passed until the regular session in 2023.
It’s likely the next expansive school safety bill will reach the governor’s desk sometime in May, as was the case with Senate Bill 11, which passed a year after the Santa Fe High School Shooting.