The Santa Fe shooter used his father’s guns. But his parents aren’t liable under Texas law.
The 17-year-old shooter who killed 10 people at Santa Fe High School last week used his father's guns. But his family would not be liable under Texas' safe storage law, since the law only applies to children under 17.
When a southeast Texas high schooler killed 10 people and injured 13 more in a shooting rampage on Friday, he was using his father’s legally owned firearms: a shotgun and a .38 revolver, authorities say.
That detail has made questions about how kids get their parents’ guns — and arguments about the importance of secure gun storage — top of mind in the days following a Santa Fe High School mass slaying that directed national attention to a Galveston County school of about 1,400 students. And after offering his prayers, those were the first two points Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick made at a press conference Friday afternoon.
“What can we do now?” Patrick asked, standing in front of the school that witnessed the atrocity. “One, if you’re a parent and you own guns, lock your guns safely away. Your children should not be able, or anyone else, to get your legally owned guns. ... This is one big step we can take.”
Later that afternoon, U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, seemed to go even further. It’s “only prudent,” he said, that parents keep their firearms under lock and key; it’s an “open issue” whether parents should be legally required to do so.
Texas already has a law aimed at keeping parents’ legally owned guns out of the hands of their children, but it failed to prevent Friday’s shooting for several reasons — the most important of which, said state Rep. Phil King, R-Weatherford, is that it’s “reactive, not proactive.”
Texas law allows prosecutors to go after parents whose children gain access to their loaded firearms, but it's one of the weaker ones among the 27 states with a child-access prevention law.
Eleven states require gun owners to lock their guns securely in the first place instead of just holding them accountable after any breaches of that security.
Texas has long been hostile to the type of gun regulations that many on the left call for in the wake of tragedies like Friday’s. But two of the state’s top Republican leaders — Patrick, the hardline conservative leader of the Texas Senate, and Cornyn, the U.S. Senate majority whip and one of the most powerful Republicans in Congress — both seemed open to safe-storage regulations. Neither Cornyn nor Patrick returned requests for comment on such a measure.
King, the chairman of the House Homeland Security & Public Safety Committee, which heard many of the gun-related measures floated at the Capitol last session, said he recognizes the need to tackle the problem from the front end. But the former police officer, who will participate in a series of roundtable discussions Gov. Greg Abbott has set for this week, was careful to point out the downside of laws that require locking up guns within the home: “If you hear someone breaking your glass or kicking in the door at night, you don’t have time to run and get the keys and unlock a vault device,” he said.
Still, experts agreed preventive gun safety legislation is critical.
“I think there’s a difference: When the law says you can’t do something, a lot of people say, ‘I’m not gonna do it,’” said Adam Winkler, a University of California at Los Angeles law professor who studies gun violence. “Civil liability laws don’t tell gun owners they have to store their guns safely. ... It basically says, ‘You can take your chances.’ And that’s the kind of thing people will discount.”
Authorities have not made clear how the guns the alleged shooter, 17-year-old Dimitrios Pagourtzis, obtained from his father were stored or whether Pagourtzis had routine access to them. Regardless, Pagourtzis’ family would not be liable under Texas law, which, unlike some other states’ laws, applies only to children under 17.
Texas law is less stringent than the child-access prevention laws in other states both because of its lower age requirement and because it penalizes only adults whose guns are loaded when they are accessed by children. In other states, experts said, parents can be penalized when their unloaded guns and their ammunition are accessible separately.
Safe storage laws vary widely among the 11 states that have them. The strongest is in Massachusetts, where all firearms must be stored with a lock. In other states, that provision is only required under certain circumstances, such as if a gun owner lives with a person who is ineligible to possess firearms.
A two-year study of U.S. gun laws conducted by the RAND Corporation, a public policy research organization, found that child-access prevention laws reduce suicide rates as well as accidental deaths and injuries. Evidence that such laws reduced mass shootings and violent crime was “inconclusive,” the study said.
Even after strong statements from two top Texas Republicans, it’s not clear whether firearm storage laws will make it to the floor when lawmakers next reconvene in Austin. But it’s likely to arise in the coming days, as stakeholders gather to, as Abbott has asked, “do more than just pray.”
“When we look at just one case, it’s absolutely possible it would’ve helped,” said Ari Freilich, a staff attorney with the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence. “When we look more broadly, at the nation, at a large state like Texas, absolutely it would make it less likely that these incidents would happen.”
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