By JIM VERTUNO and JAKE BLEIBERG – Associated Press
AUSTIN, Texas (AP) – The first public hearings in Texas looking at the Uvalde school massacre have focused on a cascade of law enforcement, school building security and mental health care with only a few mentions of the shooter’s AR-15-style semi-automatic rifle and gun reform.
One day after the head of the Texas State Police called law enforcement’s response to the May 24 massacre an “absorbing failure,” Texas senators on Wednesday turned their attention to mental health for schools and the lack of counselors and mental health providers.
Only at the end of Wednesday’s hearing in the Texas Capitol was there a lot of talk about gun laws. And even then, it received little recognition.
The confused reaction to the attack, which left 19 children and two teachers dead at Robb Elementary, has angered the nation, and a recent wave of deadly mass shootings has renewed a push for more gun laws. By the end of the week, the U.S. Senate could pass new legislation that would sharpen background checks for the youngest arms buyers and require more vendors to perform background checks.
But the Republican-dominated committee investigating the Uvalde tragedy appeared to have little appetite for new gun laws, even after a series of mass shootings in Texas that killed more than 85 people in the past five years – in an El Paso Walmart, a church in Sutherland Springs, a Santa Fe High School outside of Houston and in West Texas oil land.
The state-Republican-controlled Legislative Assembly has spent the past decade cutting restrictions. Texas does not require permission to carry a long rifle like the one used in Uvalde. Last year, lawmakers made it legal for anyone 21 and older to carry a weapon in public without a license, background check or education.
Nicole Golden, CEO of Texas Gun Sense, told the committee that tighter gun control may have prevented previous mass shootings in Texas and urged state lawmakers to consider a so-called “red flag” law and require background checks on private gun sales.
“I’ve never seen anything like it in the last month in terms of resentment, despair and heartache,” Golden said. “Texas is facing a crisis, a crisis we know we’ve been facing for too long.”
She received no questions from Republican lawmakers on the panel.
Outside the Senate, nearly two dozen members of the Moms Demand Action Group for Gun Sense in America held signs criticizing Republican Gov. Greg Abbott and urging lawmakers to lift new restrictions on arms sales and ownership.
“We are tired of these do-nothing committees and round tables that have taken place after every mass shooting in Texas,” said Melanie Greene of Austin. “They talk about what went wrong, and it’s usually anything but weapons. We’m tired of all the talk and we want some action.”
Among the changes the group wants is to raise the age of gun ownership from 18 to 21 years. The gunman at Robb Elementary was an 18-year-old former student, Salvador Ramos.
Greene was not optimistic. “This committee is a dog-and-pony show. It’s performative political theater. But we will not give up,” Greene said.
Republican Senator Bob Hall tried to steer clear of any talk of guns.
“It does not require a gun. This man had enough time to do it with his hands or a baseball bat. And so it is not the gun, it is the person,” Hall said Tuesday as hearings began in Austin, 260 miles from Uvalde.
Senator Royce West, one of the Democrats’ panel members, said that “without having a discussion of these rights and the restrictions associated with them, this would be an incomplete discussion.”
Yet it is the delays and flaws in the law enforcement response at Robb Elementary School that are the focus of federal, state and local investigations.
Steve McCraw, director of the Texas Department of Public Safety, said Tuesday that police had enough officers and firepower at the school to stop Ramos three minutes after he entered the building, but they waited more than an hour before they stormed the classroom and killed him.
McCraw outlined a number of missed opportunities, communication crashes and errors based on a study that included about 700 interviews. He also blamed much of Pete Arredondo, the Uvalde School District Police Chief, who McCraw said was the commander-in-chief.
Arredondo, who testified Tuesday at a closed hearing in a Texas House committee, has said he did not consider himself responsible and assumed someone else had taken control. He has denied repeated requests for comment from the Associated Press.
Uvalde’s mayor pushed McCraw’s guilt on Arredondo back, saying the Department of Public Safety has repeatedly released false information about the shooting and obscured the role of its own officers.
Public pressure has grown for government and local officials to release more information.
On Wednesday, State Senator Roland Gutierrez, who represents Uvalde, filed a lawsuit seeking to force the Texas Department of Public Safety to pass records related to its investigation into the shooting. The families of the victims “deserve to know the complete, unchanging truth of what happened that day,” a lawyer for the Democrat wrote in the case.
Bleiberg reported from Dallas. Associated Press writer John Seewer of Toledo, Ohio, contributed to this report.
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