Governor Greg Abbott unveils his plan to enhance school safety during a press conference at Dallas Independent School District headquarters in Dallas, Wednesday, May 30, 2018. Abbott on Wednesday called for schools to have more armed personnel and said they should put a bigger focus on spotting student mental health problems but he proposed only a few small restrictions on guns following a deadly shooting at a high school near Houston. (Vernon Bryant/The Dallas Morning News via AP)

Abbott's school safety plan includes few gun restrictions

May 30, 2018 - 7:27 pm

DALLAS (AP) — Texas Gov. Greg Abbott on Wednesday called for schools to have more armed personnel and said they should put greater focus on spotting student mental health problems but he proposed only a few small restrictions on guns following a shooting at a high school near Houston that left 10 people dead.

The Republican and staunch gun-rights supporter released a 43-page report following three days of mostly closed-door meetings last week organized with school district officials, shooting survivors and groups on both sides of the gun-control debate, among others.

The recommendations are voluntary and some would require changes to state laws that would need approval from the Legislature, which doesn't come back into session until 2019. School districts wishing to make some of the changes could begin doing so, such as sending staff for free gun training this summer.

The lack of major gun control measures is not surprising in a state that embraces its gun-friendly reputation and has more than 1.2 million people licensed to carry handguns.

The only significant gun-related proposal was a possible "red flag" law, although Abbott gave it a tepid endorsement, asking leaders of the Legislature to "consider the merits." Eight states have red flag laws that allow family, law enforcement and others to file a petition to remove firearms from a potentially dangerous person. Florida, Vermont and Maryland passed such laws after the mass school shooting in Florida in February.

Abbott's report does not appear to depart much from the playbook of the powerful National Rifle Association following school shootings.

Alice Tripp, legislative director for the NRA-affiliated Texas State Rifle Association said Abbott's proposals wouldn't lead to weapons being seized without some protections for gun owners. "Gov. Abbott has pledged due process. He's a gun owner himself," Tripp said.

Abbott is proposing a change to the state law that says guns can't be accessible to children under 17, with exceptions such as hunting or parent supervision. He's encouraging the Legislature to consider making the law also apply to 17-year-olds. Authorities have charged a 17-year-old student, Dimitrios Pagourtzis, with capital murder in the May 18 attack at Santa Fe High School. Pagourtzis is accused of using a shotgun and .38 revolver that belonged to his father.

Abbott also wants a new law that would require gun owners to report a lost or stolen firearm within 10 days.

The report says the state will have access to nearly $70 million through federal funding and state grants for the proposals. The state also expects to compete for an additional $40 million from federal programs, and Abbott says he'll ask state lawmakers for a further $30 million.

"We all share a common bond: And that is we want action to prevent another shooting like what happened at Santa Fe High School," Abbott, who is campaigning for re-election, said during a news conference at Dallas school district headquarters.

Abbott's Democratic opponent for governor, Lupe Valdez, said it's "astounding" how few of the proposals directly address gun violence.

So far, the governor has not been enthusiastic about calls for a special legislative session on gun laws — a sharp contrast to the response in Florida following the February high school shooting there that killed 17 people. Florida lawmakers, who were already in session, passed a gun-control package three weeks later, thanks in part to a lobbying campaign led by student survivors of the attack.

In Texas, any attempts to create a mechanism to seize weapons is likely to be met with skepticism in a Republican-controlled Legislature that has expanded the rights of gun owners in recent years and made it easier and cheaper to be licensed to carry a handgun.

Also unlike the students in Florida, several students at Santa Fe High School have been vocal opponents of increased gun control, including some who were invited to meet with Abbott last week.

Kris Brown, the co-president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, said: "The answer to preventing school shootings isn't some deep-seated secret. It's guns. It's the fact that it's frighteningly easy for dangerous people to get access to a gun, and this proposal does little to stop that."

Texas State Teachers Association President Noel Candelaria said he "strongly objects" to arming more teachers. "Teachers are trained to teach and to nuture, not double up as security guards," Candelaria said.

Abbott's recommendations include measures to "harden" campuses such as creating vestibules where doors must by remotely unlocked before visitors enter, installing metal detectors and having an alarm that would signal there's an active shooter.

Abbott is also recommending an expansion of a program that identifies students at risk of committing violence and provides help for them. He also wants to increase the number of people trained to identify signs of mental illness and increase awareness of a state system that allows people to report people who may be a threat and suspicious activity.

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Associated Press reporter Jim Vertuno contributed to this report from Austin.