Texas governor has long opposed gun control. Now he's leading a discussion on stopping school shootings

In the wake of Friday's deadly shooting at Santa Fe High School, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott plans to convene...

Posted: May 21, 2018 1:38 PM
Updated: May 21, 2018 1:38 PM

In the wake of Friday's deadly shooting at Santa Fe High School, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott plans to convene "roundtable discussions" on how to curb gun violence. But given his strong pro-gun rights record, some gun control advocates are skeptical about his ability to adequately address the issue.

"He's said things in the past like, 'I will sign any gun rights bill that reaches my desk,' so it's pretty clear where he has stood" said Ed Scruggs, spokesman and vice chair of the board of Texas Gun Sense, a nonpartisan organization that works to reduce gun violence. Abbott made that remark at a press conference in February 2015, according to the Texas Tribune.

"His whole reputation as governor has been built around Second Amendment issues," Scruggs said. "He's really played to the base."

Julie Gavran, the western director of the organization Keep Guns off Campus, isn't convinced Abbott's serious about tackling the issue.

"He's running for re-election ... and a lot of this is to gain votes," she said. "I'm just going to say it."

Abbott's office did not respond to CNN's requests for comment.

What we know about the roundtable

"It's time in Texas that we take action to step up," Abbott said at a press conference Friday, "and make sure this tragedy is never repeated ever again in the history of the state of Texas."

"We want to hear from parents, we want to hear from students, we want to hear from educators, we want to hear from concerned citizens," he said. "We want to hear from those who hold the Second Amendment right in high esteem."

"We want to hear from everybody who has an interest in what has happened today so we can work together on putting together laws that will protect Second Amendment rights but at the same time ensure that our communities and especially our schools are safer places," he said.

He later said he also wants to hear from gun control activists, state politicians and victims of November's deadly shooting at a church in Sutherland Springs. "We want input from a lot of different people from across the state of Texas who will offer ideas," he said.

It's unclear what specific policy proposals will be on Abbott's agenda for the discussions, which are set to begin Tuesday.

On Friday, Abbott specifically pointed to background checks and efforts to keep guns out of the hands of people who may pose a risk to those around them. He also reiterated Republican talking points about school safety personnel and mental health issues, like Florida Gov. Rick Scott did after a gunman killed 17 people at a high school in Parkland in February.

A staunch gun rights defender

Abbott regularly tweets about guns and his support for gun rights, often tagging the National Rifle Association (NRA), which endorsed Abbott when he first ran for governor in 2014, and gave him an "A" rating.

The governor's main contributions to Texas gun law are two bills he signed in 2015, not long after he took office.

One was an open carry law -- which he signed at a gun range -- allowing gun owners to openly carry handguns on their person with the appropriate license. Texas already allowed gun owners to carry rifles in public.

The other was a campus carry law, which allows people over the age of 21 to carry handguns on public university campuses, so long as the weapon is concealed and the owner has a license.

"By signing these bills into law, Texans can be assured that their Second Amendment rights will be stronger and more secure than ever before," Abbott said at the time of the signing. He touts both bills on his campaign website.

He occasionally tweets pictures of himself at the shooting range, showing off his marksmanship. Once, he wrote that he went to the range to "celebrate signing a law that lowers the license to carry fee."

"I'm EMBARRASSED," he tweeted in October 2015. "Texas #2 in nation for new gun purchases, behind CALIFORNIA. Let's pick up the pace Texans. @NRA"

Texas tops the list of states with the deadliest mass shootings in the US since 1948. Tied for second place are California and Florida.

Some are hopeful Abbott will be effective...

Scruggs didn't expect Abbott to call for a conversation about gun control so soon after the shooting. "I was surprised it came as soon as it did, but I really think the standard 'thoughts and prayers' line right after one of these things is just not working any longer," Scruggs said.

Scruggs said he believes Abbott has an opportunity as a staunch defender of gun rights to help opposing sides come to a common understanding.

"If he were to seek compromise, he's probably the best person to lead the conversation," Scruggs said.

State Rep. Gene Wu, a Democrat, also welcomes a conversation about the issues, he said, because even that's more than Texas Republicans have allowed in the past.

"This is Texas. You've seen what the governor has said in the past about guns," Wu said. "We're appreciative that they're even budging on the willingness to have a discussion."

Wu believes Abbott has what it takes to get something done, but it's important that people with all view points are invited to the table.

If Abbott truly involves people from opposing sides, Wu said, that will show that he's serious about change.

"If the governor does not (include) gun control advocates or someone from Moms Demand Action, or someone that speaks for the kids and speaks for gun control, we can come back and say, 'This is just a farce. This is just a political stunt.'"

Abbott has demonstrated in the past that he's able to get things done when he takes an active role in the legislature, Wu said. "If he wants to be a leader in this, he absolutely has the intelligence and the ability to do so."

"But, as we say, the proof is in the pudding," Wu said. "Let's see what actually happens."

... others aren't so sure

Abbott's website was still touting a shotgun giveaway days after the Santa Fe shooting. Jack Kappelman, a high school senior and organizer for the Austin March for Our Lives, said that made Abbott's call for action seem hollow.

"When I first heard Abbott was calling for these roundtables, I was excited," he said. "I thought this was a chance."

But in Abbott's initial statement Friday, "nowhere did it say anything about including gun violence prevention activists," Kappelman said. "I think that's a strong indicator of how these talks might go."

On Sunday afternoon, Abbott said gun control advocates would be participants in the upcoming discussion.

Gavran of Keep Guns Off Campus, doesn't believe Texans will see a heartfelt effort by the governor.

"It's a political move on his part," Gavran said, "and I don't think it's sincere."

Gavran points to other high-profile mass shootings that occurred under Abbott's governorship, including the Sutherland Springs shooting and an ambush on police officers in Dallas in July 2016. There were opportunities, she said, to tackle the issue and he didn't.

"Even after the Dallas police shooting -- instead of, 'Let's take care of mental health or magazine capacity,' he goes out and buys military-grade bulletproof vests for law enforcement."

Based on his record and past remarks, Gavran believes Abbott isn't well-suited to lead the discussion to curb gun violence. His suggestion of a discussion instead of actual action suggests he is "noncommittal," she said.

Gavran doesn't think Abbott's roundtable will focus on any actual gun control measures, but on policy changes to keep schools safer or ensure there are armed officers on campus. On Sunday, Abbott spoke to reporters about pursuing policies that ensure better security at schools, while his Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick blamed shootings on a number of factors other than guns -- video games, schools' entrances and exits, irresponsible gun owners, and the nation's culture that allows abortions.

"It's not taking care of the problem ahead of time, like what we can do to prevent these things," Gavran said. "I don't think he's going to address specifically the gun problem in this country."

But, Gavran added, she hopes she's wrong.

Mike Collier, a Democrat running for lieutenant governor, doesn't buy it either, saying Abbott and Patrick "consistently do nothing" after mass shootings.

"Now I've listened to their remarks today, and all I hear is talk," Collier said in a press conference Friday. "Talk is cheap. What we need is action."

Collier demanded that Abbott call for a special session of the state's legislature to address the gun violence epidemic in order to find solutions.

"Let me say this, Abbott and Patrick called a special session over bathrooms," Collier said, referring to a controversial bill that would have required people to use school restrooms that matched the sex on their birth certificates. Abbott called a special session to address the bill, but it failed to pass. "That has nothing to do with students dying."

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