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Analysis: Another mass shooting and a fresh chance to act

Maybe the mass shooting at Santa Fe High will be the one that spurs Texas leaders to replace thoughts and prayers with thoughts, prayers and action. In a state with a list of seemingly intractable problems, that would be a useful precedent.

Ten roses left in memory of the victims killed in a shooting at the Santa Fe High School in Santa Fe on May 20, 2018.

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Poke around on the internet and you’ll turn up article after article about guns and government and politics — the arguments that sprout every time there is another mass shooting.

This is another chance to fix things. It’s discouraging that we and our political leaders have blown so many chances, but here’s another one.

We’re either going to work things out or get used to things as they are.

This is about the Texas shootings last week at Santa Fe High School and six months ago at the First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs, but it’s also about the state’s slow Hurricane Harvey recovery, especially for people waiting to get back into their old homes or into new ones.

It’s about the frustratingly persistent contracting snafus at one of the biggest government agencies in the United States, the Texas Health and Human Services Commission.

It’s about the fouled-up property tax and school finance system that the Texas Legislature can’t seem to solve without orders from a high court — orders that, in the most recent litigation, never came.

It’s about the dangerous guard shortage at the Telford Unit of the Texas prison system, where there are at least 200 fewer guards than the current number of inmates requires.

Unresolved election laws, from voter ID to redistricting to aging electronic voting machines. Low turnout. Rising tuition at public colleges and universities. Transportation. Immigration.

These are problems we all know about — that we’ve known about for a long, long time. They’re the regular content of political campaigns, legislative arguments, court fights and protest rallies.

If Texas is a family, this is the big jar full of chores sitting in the kitchen. We know what’s in it. We just can’t seem to stop bitching at each other long enough to reach in, pull one out of the jar, and get to work.

Last Friday's shooting in Santa Fe is the newest of these and seems to have roused top officials in Texas, at the very least, into new rhetoric. “Thoughts and prayers” have given way to “we must do something,” even among those in leadership positions who are better known for their hardline defense of gun laws than for their active responses to prevent future mass murders.

“We need to do more than to just pray for the victims and their families,” Gov. Greg Abbott said on Friday. “It’s time in Texas that we take action to step up and make sure this tragedy is never repeated ever again in the history of the state of Texas.”

Ours is a reactive form of government. Things happen. Officials say stuff. The public either bears down or goes quiet, waiting for the next spin of the wheel, for the next thing to happen. Elected officials watch the public for signs of what has to be done. They are remarkably responsive and quick when the public is focused and demanding. They are also sensitive enough to public opinion to know when they’ve done all they need to do.

Sutherland Springs brought a new round of promises of action — so far without action. Now Santa Fe has spurred another round.

It would be easy to note that the state hasn’t done a lot to stop these kinds of shootings after previous incidents, but that’s not a particularly effective way to change the world. It’s easy to blame the elected officials, but it’s worth looking at the public, too — to wonder if we’re the real reason for the official reactions.

Cynicism is easy. The harder thing is to be optimistic in spite of recent history, to take the governor and others at their word — to pull this particular problem out of that jar of problems facing Texas and to get to work on it.

If the pain and shock of losing innocent Texans in churches and schools spurs us to do something this time, to demand changes on top of all those thoughts and prayers — before the Santa Fe High killings begin to disappear into modern history like Sutherland Springs and Parkland and thousands of other man-made disasters — maybe we can get a result this time. Maybe that would show everyone how to make a turn on other problems.

If government officials can make progress on knots as difficult, divisive and expensive as gun laws and mental health issues, maybe they’ll find more to do than to provide pastoral care, than providing sympathy and trying to make us feel better with speeches.

Maybe they can work their way to the bottom of that jar.

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