The other day I watched Governor Greg Abbott at the Dallas ISD board offices—surrounded by legislators from both parties—as he laid out proposals to “harden” the state’s schools against shooters. Earlier in the month, a Santa Fe High School student murdered ten people and wounded another thirteen. “We want action to prevent another shooting,” Abbott said. I immediately thought of Noelle “Cricket” Jones, a fifteen-year-old Italy, Texas, student who in January was shot in the neck and stomach by a classmate. She pleaded with a paramedic, “Please, don’t let me die.” She lived because of the paramedic’s swift action.
Why was a mass murder required for Abbott to act? Wasn’t Noelle’s plea strong enough to speak for all students in Texas or nationally?
In the months since she uttered those words, a fifteen-year-old boy stole his father’s pistol, walked into a Benton, Kentucky, school and killed two students and wounded fourteen “to break the monotony.” A nineteen-year-old former student shot up a Parkland, Florida, high school, killing seventeen. In a cell phone video, he said he wanted fame and vengeance. Then a seventeen-year-old Santa Fe student took his father’s revolver and shotgun to kill his classmates on May 18.
That was almost four months after Noelle pleaded, “Please, don’t let me die.”
If we look for a reason why it took so long for Abbott to lay out his 43-page plan, perhaps we need look no further than his statement that went along with it: “I can assure you I will never allow Second Amendment rights to be infringed, but I will always promote responsible gun ownership.” In other words, don’t search the plan for much in the way of firearm regulation.
Abbott urged gun owners to report stolen firearms. But there is no national system of gun registration. All the paperwork is stacked in boxes, arriving at a U.S. Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms office at a rate of about 5,000 boxes a day. As GQ reported in 2016, “There’s no telling how many guns we have in America—and when one gets used in a crime, no way for the cops to connect it to its owner. The only place the police can turn for help is a Kafkaesque agency in West Virginia, where, thanks to the gun lobby, computers are illegal and detective work is absurdly antiquated. On purpose.”
Immediately after the Santa Fe shooting, I and other members of the news media noted that the Texas law on parental responsibility only covered children to the age of sixteen, and the shooter was seventeen. Abbott, in his school hardening plan, proposed raising the age to seventeen. That means a parent could face a possible felony charge for not securing a firearm and keeping a child from obtaining it and committing a homicide. (State law covers accidental death as well as murder.)
But because Abbott is determined to make no changes to gun laws, there will still be more than 70,000 Texas high school students between the ages of eighteen and twenty whose parents will not be responsible if they commit a shooting with the parent’s firearm. These students will also be able to buy an AR-15 or a shotgun without restriction, possibly to buy for hunting or target practice, or, like Nikolas Cruz in Florida, to use for a mass shooting. “With the power of my AR, you will all know who I am,” Cruz told his cell phone.
Why doesn’t Abbott address this age gap? Because it would require raising the age limit for purchasing a rifle or shotgun in Texas. Each of those students is eligible to walk into a sporting goods store and purchase an AR-15 rifle or a shotgun—and remember that the Santa Fe shooter used his father’s shotgun. Think of this: a young person who cannot legally buy alcohol in Texas or buy cigarettes in San Antonio can purchase a rifle or a shotgun. Even to obtain a license to carry a Texas handgun, a person must be 21. And if they bring a parent’s firearm to school, the parent will face no criminal responsibility for failing to secure the firearm.
After Nikolas Cruz shot up his former high school, the Florida Legislature passed and Republican governor Rick Scott signed into law a requirement raising the age in Florida for the purchase of any firearm from 18 to 21. The National Rifle Association is suing in an effort to void that age restriction.
Among Abbott’s other proposals is to have more licensed police officers—known as School Resource Officers—on campuses. He also wants to increase the number of teachers who are trained to carry a firearm at school and eliminate the portion of the state law that requires teachers to lock their weapons in a safe. (Abbott is correct that having the firearm in a safe means it is not readily available for a teacher to use in an emergency.) A new Quinnipiac University Poll found that 87 percent of Texas voters support having armed security officers at schools, while voters split 51 percent to 45 percent in supporting the arming of teachers. Support for arming teachers was slightly higher among parents with children in public schools.
But consider this: the anti-gun group Everytown for Gun Safety reports that there have been at least 44 incidents of gunfire so far this year on the grounds of colleges or K-12 schools. Out of those, four—almost one out of every ten—has been the accidental discharge of a firearm belonging to a licensed peace officer. At the Harmony Learning Center in Maplewood, Minnesota, in February, a school liaison officer was talking to students when a third grade student fingered his holstered firearm, causing it to discharge. In another instance, a police officer was at school watching his son wrestle when his firearm accidentally discharged. Merely having trained people does not automatically guarantee gun safety.
However, there is no doubt that police at school can limit the damage caused by a school shooter. Two confronted the shooter at Santa Fe—one was badly wounded—and both are credited with bringing the carnage to an end. In March, a school resource officer at Great Mills High School in Maryland shot a 17-year-old student minutes after he used a Glock 9-millimeter pistol to fatally wound a girl who had broken up with him days before. The officer’s bullet hit the student in the hand at the same moment the student fired his own suicide shot.
But in Round Rock, Texas, in 2015, a school resource officer was investigated after grabbing a student by the throat and body-slamming him after breaking up a student altercation in the cafeteria. San Antonio ISD last year fired a resource officer for body-slamming a student. A similar incident occurred at a Florida school in April. Having licensed peace officers in school has become an unfortunate necessity, but they are not always a panacea.
Governor Abbott also has proposed installing metal detectors at schools. I’ll refer you back to the piece I did recently on the shortcomings of this proposal after Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick made it. Since writing that piece, I have learned of a twelve-year-old student in Los Angeles in February who avoided a random wand check that would have discovered a handgun in her backpack. The weapon fell out and discharged, shooting a fellow student in the head. Metal detectors were in place but not in use at a Birmingham, Alabama, high school in March when a student football player fired a handgun, killing a girl. Three resource officers were in the school but not present where the shooting occurred. The boy has been charged with manslaughter.
Another of Abbott’s proposals is for school districts to use programs that search student social media accounts for red-flag words, such as kill. Two other words to think about: Cambridge Analytica. This same basic process was used to collect data on millions of Facebook users for use in the presidential campaigns of Ted Cruz and Donald Trump. Such programs may identify potential school shooters, but safeguards need to be in place to make certain the searches do not turn into permanent government profiling of individuals.
A more targeted approach that Abbott promoted is an expansion of the Texas Tech Health Sciences Center’s Telemedicine Wellness Intervention Triage & Referral (TWITR) Project. Students are referred to the program by trained school staff who have screened them for risk behaviors. According to Abbott’s report, over four years there have been 25 students removed from school, 44 placed in alternative schools, and 38 admitted to hospitals. Abbott wants to commit $20 million to expanding the program. This is probably the most worthwhile program in the governor’s package of suggestions.
No amount of school hardening will ever completely eliminate school violence. As far back as 1955, Hollywood recognized it as a topic of drama in The Blackboard Jungle. But there is more we can do to stop the violence. Recently, I was in an Army surplus store that was selling armored book bags. I don’t want the day to arrive when students have to go to school in body armor. As a responsible gun owner, I believe some reasonable and responsible restrictions are needed, such as raising the age to purchase a rifle or shotgun to 21 and making parents responsible for anyone up to that age who lives in their home.
Let’s honor Noelle’s plea on behalf of herself and all students: “Please, don’t let me die.”
Comments? Questions? You can reach R.G. Ratcliffe here.