The Austin Chronicle

Point Austin: Another Year of the Gun

As the carnage continues, the Legislature shrugs again

By Michael King, June 7, 2019, News

The latest high-profile mass shooting – 13 people dead, six injured in Virginia Beach on May 31 – jolted us back briefly into the ordinary reality of life in the U.S. The double-digit death toll made the Virginia massacre stand out for a few days in the news cycle, but the loss of life was not unique. Two days earlier, three people were killed and two injured in a shooting in Cleveland, Texas; that same day (May 29), two people were killed and two wounded in St. Louis, Missouri; earlier in Virginia (May 25), one person was killed and nine wounded at a Memorial Day party. The drumbeat goes on, and the numbers accumulate.

According to the nonprofit Gun Violence Archive, which tracks the national carnage as accurately as possible, as of June 5 there had been 156 mass shootings in the U.S. this year, and nearly 23,000 gun incidents in all, resulting in 5,996 deaths. The dead or injured included 249 children (11 or younger) and 1,140 teenagers (12-17); the total does not encompass harder-to-track suicides by firearm, of which the U.S. sees about 22,000 a year.

By the GVA's definition (four or more victims killed or injured), there have been nine mass shootings in Texas this year. Twenty victims killed, 21 injured. The drip, drip, drip of daily numbers for five months just ended – too numerous to recount here.

Guns 'R' Us, As Always

During the 2017-18 legislative interim, a couple of Texas shootings could not fail to touch the public conscience. In November 2017, 26 people were murdered and another 20 injured in a Sutherland Springs church; last May, a student at Santa Fe High School fatally shot 10 people and wounded 13 more. The massacres were sufficiently shocking to prompt Gov. Greg Abbott to convene a stakeholders group and issue a 40-point "School and Firearm Safety Action Plan."

How did the 86th Texas Legislature respond? With a mixed session overall, but on balance, rather worse for those Texans who would like to see some rational limits on the proliferation of guns. Although there was a bit of good news – unrestricted "constitutional carry" collapsed after the public bullying of legislators by its most ardent supporters – the dominant response was more of the same: "hardening" schools, adding school marshals and, most egregiously, allowing unlicensed carry in the week following a "disaster" – even in emergency shelters, unless the shelter staff have the time and resources to provide storage. In short, the official answer to gun violence remains ... more guns.

Keep On Pushing

There was indeed some progress. According to Ed Scruggs, board member and spokesman for Texas Gun Sense, funding is included in the budget (pending gubernatorial approval) for a Texas Department of Public Safety "safe storage and suicide prevention" program, long advocated for and this year proposed in a bill (House Bill 316) that died in Calendars before reaching the House floor. Perhaps, if implemented and sustained, the program will save a few lives. Another law (Senate Bill 325, already signed) will create the first statewide registry of protective orders, possibly preventing some domestic gun violence. HB 1168 (awaiting signature) would ban guns on an airport tarmac (didn't know that was currently legal, did you?).

Other proposed reforms – limiting child access, forbidding lying on background checks, requiring reporting of lost or stolen firearms, stronger restrictions on the ability of domestic abusers to keep guns – died in the process, most without so much as a committee hearing. "On balance," said Scruggs, "overall it was a bad session. But the implosion of constitutional carry was certainly a good thing, and the statewide safe storage program has the potential of being something very important."

Scruggs noted the situation in Virginia, where Gov. Ralph Northam has called a special session in response to the Virginia Beach shooting, although what will come of it is uncertain. Scruggs described the relative disappearance of follow-up reporting on the Virginia shooting as evidence of a "troubling trend," perhaps reflecting media or public resignation to the never-ending gun violence drumbeat, most of which does not take the form of mass shootings. "Some people have given up hope on these incidents, because they keep happening," said Scruggs. "We have to remind ourselves to keep focusing on this, no matter how hopeless it may seem. Most shooting deaths are not the result of a mass shooting. It's usually domestic violence, or suicide, or things like that.

"So any little thing we do, is going to make progress. ... There's a whole lot of possible ground we can make up, if we just keep pressing."

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