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Analysis: After a mass shooting, a Texas governor’s call to arms

The timing of a terrible school shooting — as his re-election campaign kicks into high gear — gave Gov. Greg Abbott room to call for a change in the debate that usually follows these kinds of tragedies. What will he do with it?

Texas Governor Greg Abbott convenes the second of three panels studying school safety and student mental health issues at the Texas Capitol in the wake of last week's Santa Fe, Texas school shooting that left eight students and two teachers dead.

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Gov. Greg Abbott’s decision to move past thoughts and prayers after this month’s shooting at Santa Fe High School — even without knowing what actions he will propose — is in and of itself a break from the norm.

Ten people were killed and 13 more were wounded when an armed Santa Fe student walked into the school and opened fire two Fridays ago. Right away, Abbott tore up the normal response for a Republican lawmaker in Texas: “We need to do more than to just pray for the victims and their families,” he said. “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.”

He convened a series of three mostly private roundtables last week, hoping, he said, to hear about how to respond to that and earlier mass shootings from as many points of view as possible. The participants included survivors from Santa Fe and from last year’s shooting at a church in Sutherland Springs, law enforcement, educators, state agency officials, lawmakers, gun rights lobbyists, gun control activists and others. He’s unveiling his proposals for school safety later today in Dallas and in San Marcos.

And he said last week via Twitter that, “I’m writing school safety solutions with our glorious Capitol Dome in the background for inspiration. I’ll soon announce many substantive details that can be implemented before the next school year begins.”

It’s hard to tell whether this is going to be a paint job or a remodel — a superficial or a substantial set of proposals. Or what it will require from legislators and agencies and school districts not under the governor’s direct control, or how much of it can or will be in place when the state’s 5.3 million public school students return to classes at the end of the summer.

The meetings unearthed dozens of ideas, including improving mental health screening and treating, tightening gun laws, arming teachers and other school personnel, improving security at school buildings and facilities with metal detectors and additional security officers, and training schools and law enforcement on the best ways to respond to threatened and actual mass shootings.

Coming as it does during a re-election campaign against a Democrat — former Dallas County Sheriff Lupe Valdez — who had a long career in law enforcement and the military, Abbott’s ideas have to be viewed through a political lens. If they’re popular with voters, that’s good politics. If he’s seen as trying something new and potentially effective, that’s a good defense against Valdez’s deeper experience in law enforcement.

The timing of the coming school year constrains the governor a bit; even if he called the Texas Legislature into a special session this summer, it would be difficult to get any new laws put into effect before school starts. Without supermajority support, there’s a three-month lag between the time lawmakers pass legislation and the time it becomes law.

Tinkering with or really changing gun laws in Texas rarely attracts a simple majority — much less an overwhelming one. That leaves a governor or an agency head with nothing but administrative tools — including some limited spending authority.

With the help of a lieutenant governor and a speaker, a governor can get the Legislative Budget Board — a 10-member committee — to move money around in the state budget without consulting the full Legislature. The governor has some money in his own office’s budget. And some of the agencies that might be pulled into this — the Texas Education Agency, the Department of Public Safety and the Texas Health and Human Services Commission are the big ones — could probably pull together some temporary solutions until the regular legislative session starts in January.

Almost anything would be a break from the normal post-shooting political back-and-forth, and will be tested both practically and politically. Will it make the schools in Texas safer than they are today? And in a state notable for its conservatism and its gun culture, are voters ready to make some changes?

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