Thursday, a Senate special committee held its first meeting to discuss gun violence and prevention and address the eight executive orders issued by Gov. Greg Abbott. These orders were targeted at strengthening the state's Suspicious Activity Reporting Network, and much of the day's testimony focused on the network's actions and funding.
Overall, committee members devoted most of their discussion time to asking panel members about the ways agencies can work together, on reporting and reaction systems. But the committee spent barely any time considering the weapons themselves or access to them.
Discussion centered around mental health, social media and shooters who self-radicalize online. Many panel members repeated concerns about infringing on Second Amendment rights and due process of the law. The committee heard from Texas Department of Public Safety officials, prosecutors and law enforcement officials, and members of Texas State Health and Human Services.
Partway into the discussion, Sen. Jane Nelson, a Republican from Flower Mound, expressed her conviction that no laws could completely address the problem, saying that some people are simply evil, and evil cannot be predicted.
“And I personally am not willing to sacrifice our Second Amendment rights to try to prevent evil from occurring,” she said.
Steve McGraw, director of the Department of Public Safety, told the committee that the Suspicious Activity Reporting Network operates through eight “fusion centers” that monitor, manage and assess threats. Seven of those centers oversee local actions, and one is focused on the entire state. Each center has FBI agents dedicated to assessing if reports of threats are credible or of concern.
In response to Abbott's executive orders, the fusion centers will add 158 additional personnel, including 24 FBI agents and 54 analysts. McGraw also spoke about the need to increase public awareness and educate communities on how to respond to mass shooting events.
McGraw detailed how the network is developing a rigorous set of standardized questions that will be used to assess threat reports and direct action. He also outlined ways the agency is working to improve speed, communication and integration of information about threats. DPS is working with mental health professionals to design the questions.
When pressed, McGraw confirmed that the alleged El Paso shooter's mother reported a concern about her son before the shooting, saying that he had purchased an assault weapon, and that the communications operator interviewed her to determine if he showed indicators of violence or suicide. McGraw said there were no laws preventing DPS from looking into the man's online activity after that call.
Tarrant County Assistant District Attorney Vincent Giardino did give the committee an overview of the few situations under Texas law that prohibit gun ownership, most of which expire after five years or a probation sentence served. After that time period, those people would not pass a background check or be able to purchase a gun, but would not violate state law simply by having guns.
Committee members repeatedly fell back on the conviction that many mass shooters are mentally ill. Sen. Donna Campbell, a Republican from New Braunfels, also suggested that the internet and variety of media available in the world have a negative effect on children.
“There is an evil message many times that are embedded in that,” she said.
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Sonja Gaines, deputy executive commissioner for Intellectual and Developmental Disability and Behavioral Health Services, told the committee that less than 5% of all violent acts in the U.S. are committed by people with mental health conditions. Many potential threats have been eliminated with early intervention and treatment, she said.
Responding to the idea that very few violent acts are committed by people with mental illnesses, Campbell said she thought that even if individuals had no history of mental illness, there was a triggering event that in the moment of the shooting meant that they were not in their proper state of mind.
“So they may not be defined as mentally ill the day before. But nobody in their right mind goes out and kills anybody,” she said.
Mental health, reaction and intervention will continue to be a focus of the committee chair, said Sen. Joan Huffman, a Harris County Republican, as she adjourned the day's discussions.