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Here’s Why Gov. Abbott’s School Safety Discussion Was Little More Than Show 

click to enlarge FLICKR / GAGE SKIDMORE
  • Flickr / Gage Skidmore
To Rep. Lloyd Doggett, Governor Greg Abbott’s recently completed roundtable on school safety had a familiar ring. It reminded him of President Trump’s “listening session” earlier this year with the survivors of the Parkland, Fla., school shooting.

Trump’s session provided a top-of-the-fold photo op, but it only resulted in a single concrete effort to rein in access to guns — a ban on bump stocks — and that was dropped soon after the National Rifle Association cranked up pressure on lawmakers.

“Greg Abbott has taken the Trump approach, which is to convene some people, appoint a committee and hope the whole thing goes away,” said Doggett, a San Antonio-Austin Democrat who participated in the 2016 pro-gun control sit-in on the House floor.

Abbott announced his three-day roundtable last Monday in response to the 10-fatality shooting at Santa Fe High School on May 18. That slaughter came a few months after the mass shooting at a Baptist church in Sutherland Springs, near San Antonio.

The Republican governor’s sessions were largely closed to the media, but he did share a list of ideas he planned to introduce. Some sounded reasonable, even executable — better training for school personnel, say, or better coordination between schools and law enforcement. But absent — surprise, surprise — were any suggestions that curbing the availability of guns just might decrease gun violence. Off the list, apparently, were universal background checks or banning assault weapons such as the one that killed 26 people in Sutherland Springs.

Here are four reasons Doggett and others think Abbott’s roundtable is better described as political theater in the round.

Abbott’s beholden to the NRA.

Abbott was elected to office with the National Rifle Association’s endorsement, and he enjoys a 100 percent approval rating from the organization. Earlier this month, when he spoke at its annual convention in Dallas, he bragged about his starring role in making Texas an open-carry state and allowing students to pack firearms on public university campuses. “The answer (to gun violence) is to strengthen Second Amendment rights for law-abiding citizens of the United States of America,” he told the group (to thunderous applause, most likely). There are two reasons why politicians fear the NRA. One is money — according to the Washington Post, members of Texas’ congressional delegation alone have received nearly $428,000 in NRA donations since 1998 — and the other is votes, which the group brings out by mobilizing its true believers. Need we remind you that Abbott faces reelection in November?

Abbott’s tied his rep to guns.

Abbott’s staked an enormous amount of political capital on being one of the country’s rootin’-est, tootin’-est, six-gun-shootin’-est pro-Second Amendment politicos. His Twitter feed is chock full of pandering to the you-can-take-my-gun-when-you-pry-it-from-my-cold-dead-hands crowd. After all, this is the guy who in 2015 said, “I will sign whatever legislation reaches my desk that expands Second Amendment rights in Texas.” At the press conference after the Santa Fe shooting, a somber Abbott seemed to strike a less-strident tone, but listen closely and you’ll detect a bait and switch. He told the press he’d “speed up” background checks in response to recent tragedies, but that’s not the same as pushing for universal background checks or even stronger background checks. “What we heard was a common deflection tactic,” said Kyleanne Hunter, vice president of programs for the Brady Campaign and Center to Prevent Gun Violence. “But in this political and cultural environment, citizens are getting savvy enough to see it for a deflection tactic.”

Lawmakers won’t spend on schools.

While there didn’t appear to be any Abbott-directed discussion of guns at the roundtable, he did say he planned to talk about “hardening schools” and adding more counseling staff. Problem is, those measures cost money. And Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and the Republican-controlled legislature have gone after school funding like pit bulls savaging a mail carrier. Adjusted for inflation, per-student state funding in Texas in 2015, the latest data available from the Census Bureau, was 16 percent lower than in 2008, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. That means Texas had the sixth-biggest decline in state education funding during that period. The impact of such deep cuts isn’t lost on San Antonio state Rep. Diego Bernal. The Democrat ticked off a number of recent bills — including his own — that would have hired more public-school counselors but were ultimately shut down in the GOP-controlled lege. “This state’s been divesting in public education for more than a decade,” Bernal said. “It’s had a real blind eye to this need, and I don’t see that changing.”

Not everyone was invited.

While Abbott promised a robust and wide-ranging discussion at his roundtable, it certainly wasn’t an inclusive one. Two of the nation’s most active gun-control groups, Moms Demand Action and March for Our Lives, were notably absent, Doggett and other critics point out. According to a statement from the governor’s office, the session included parents, teachers, students, lawmakers and “interest groups that advocate for and against further gun regulations.” But the absence of two of the most visible groups in the gun-control debate belies a lack of sincerity. “I’m sure the governor does care that lives were lost, but he doesn’t have the courage, the intestinal fortitude, to actually stand up to the NRA and do something about it,” Doggett said.

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