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Better Mental Health Care, Commonsense Gun Control Are the Ways to Make Texas Safer

Columns appearing on the service and this webpage represent the views of the authors, not of The University of Texas at Austin.

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Another mass shooting. This time at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde. It was predictable and perhaps even preventable.

Texans want safe schools and reasonable improvements to gun control and mental health policies, but state policymakers have failed to enact common-sense policies that would save lives.

The trauma endured in the Uvalde community was predictable because Texas has already witnessed too many mass shootings in schools, churches and retail stores without any meaningful policy changes to date. The Uvalde school shooting was also the 27th school shooting this year.

Four other mass shootings stand out and should have brought about significant policy changes. In 2019, a 21-year-old racist from the Dallas area drove to El Paso and killed 23 people. A few weeks later, another mass shooting killed 8 people in Midland-Odessa. In 2018, 10 adults and students were killed and 13 were injured by a 17-year-old student at Santa Fe High School in the Houston area. In 2017, 26 people were killed at a Sutherland Springs church – the deadliest mass shooting in Texas history.

In the wake of the El Paso shooting, Gov. Greg Abbott said, “Our goal is to make sure we do everything we can to make sure a crime like this doesn’t happen again.” Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick said on Fox News he was “willing to take an arrow” from the National Rifle Association for strengthening background checks. Unfortunately, the Texas Legislature went in the opposite direction and made it legal for individuals to carry handguns without a license or training in 2021.

Days after the Santa Fe shooting, Abbott presented a 40-page list of recommendations to improve school safety, including providing mental health evaluations that identify students at risk of harming others. Yet, many of these recommendations were never implemented, and the events in Uvalde suggest that many schools are not safer.

Mass shootings keep happening amid broken political promises. And most Texans report a desire for reform. Overall, almost 60% of Texans oppose unlicensed carry, and almost half of Texas voters would make gun laws stricter if they could. Only 18% of Texans oppose criminal and mental health background checks.

The failure to listen to the public consensus on gun control is also made worse by a broken school finance system. A recent analysis revealed that Texas was among the bottom three states nationally (with Alabama and Mississippi) for funding adequacy at the district level. Consequently, many Texas schools lack a full-time school counselor who can conduct mental health assessments, work with teachers to implement a mental health program for the school, and provide counseling to students and families in need.

These policy failures are unacceptable. As education researchers, we have been in hundreds of schools across the state and interviewed and worked with teachers, principals, superintendents and school counselors. They care deeply about their students, and they need help.

We hope the horrific events at Robb Elementary School compel state policymakers to enact common-sense reforms. They can start by reviewing state policies that allow teenagers to access weapons.

Policymakers should also address the lack of mental health support within schools. In many rural contexts like Uvalde, schools can be an important community hub for health care and mental health support. Additional investments can be made to ensure every school has a school counselor and student caseloads do not exceed 250 students.

In addition, the state can provide additional funding for training school counselors, providing additional professional development for all school personnel on mental health, and assisting schools and community organizations in implementing research-informed community and school violence prevention programs.

We all want a safer Texas where children and adults do not need to live in fear of the next mass shooting. Gun violence is complicated and each case is unique, but we need state policymakers to support our schools and enact common-sense gun control policies to prevent the next mass shooting.

David DeMatthews is an associate professor in the Department of Educational Leadership and Policy at The University of Texas at Austin.

Carleton Brown is an associate professor in the Department of Educational Psychology and Special Services at The University of Texas at El Paso.

A version of this op-ed appeared in the Houston Chronicle, Waco Tribune Herald, Lubbock Avalanche-Journal, and San Antonio Express News.

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Texas Perspectives is a wire-style service produced by The University of Texas at Austin that is intended to provide media outlets with meaningful and thoughtful opinion columns (op-eds) on a variety of topics and current events. Authors are faculty members and staffers at UT Austin who work with University Communications to craft columns that adhere to journalistic best practices and Associated Press style guidelines. The University of Texas at Austin offers these opinion articles for publication at no charge. Columns appearing on the service and this webpage represent the views of the authors, not of The University of Texas at Austin.

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