By JIM VERTUNO and JAKE BLEIBERG
AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — The first public hearings in Texas looking into the Uvalde school massacre have focused on a cascade of law enforcement blunders, school building safety and mental health care with only scant mentions of the shooter’s AR-15-style semi-automatic rifle and gun reform.
A day after the head of the Texas state police called the law enforcement response to the May 24 slaughter an “abject failure,” Texas senators on Wednesday turned their attention to mental health funding for schools and a shortage of counselors and mental health providers.
So far, lawmakers and witnesses at the hearings in the Texas Capitol have barely mentioned the gun debate. During one of the few times it did come up, Democratic Sen. Jose Menendez asked Col. Steve McCraw, director of the Texas Department of Public Safety, whether the attacker could have done as much damage with a bat, knife or revolver.
“No,” McCraw said.
The bungled response to the attack that left 19 children and two teachers dead at Robb Elementary has infuriated the nation, and a recent wave of deadly mass shootings has renewed a push for more gun laws.
By week’s end, the U.S. Senate could pass new legislation that would toughen background checks for the youngest firearms buyers and require more sellers to conduct background checks.
The hearing Wednesday in Texas had barely started when lawmakers not on the committee sparred over what guns should be allowed in the state Capitol, where handguns are, and rifles are not. Rep. Gina Hinojosa, a Democrat, tweeted that lawmakers should “be real about our ability to keep public safe from AR-15s.” Briscoe Cain, one of the most conservative members of the House, replied that long rifles “should not be banned at the Capitol.”
Outside the Texas Senate chamber, nearly two dozen members of the gun control group Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America lined the entry way, holding signs criticizing Republican Gov. Greg Abbott and urging lawmakers to consider new restrictions on gun sales and ownership.
“We are tired of these do-nothing committees and roundtables that have been happening after every mass shooting in Texas,” said Melanie Greene of Austin. “They talk about what went wrong and it’s usually everything but guns. We’re tired of all the talk and we want some action.”
The group wants lawmakers to consider raising the age of gun ownership from 18 to 21 years old, background checks on all gun sales and a ‘red flag’ law to allow authorities to take weapons from those deemed to be a danger. The gunman at Robb Elementary was an 18-year-old former student, Salvador Ramos.
Greene is not optimistic. “This committee is a dog-and-pony show. It’s performative political theater. But we’re not going to give up,” Greene said.
Texas doesn’t require a permit to carry a long rifle like the one used in Uvalde. Last year, lawmakers made it legal for anyone 21 and older to carry a handgun in public without a license, background check or training.
The state’s Republican-dominated legislature has spent the last decade chipping away at restrictions on handguns even as Texas suffered a series of mass shootings that have left more than 85 dead in the past five years — an El Paso Walmart, a church in Sutherland Springs, at Santa Fe High School outside Houston and in the West Texas oil country.
Republican Sen. Bob Hall tried to steer the opening hearing away from any talk about guns.
“It doesn’t take a gun. This man had enough time to do it with his hands, or a baseball bat. And so it’s not the gun, it’s the person,” Hall said Tuesday.
Sen. Royce West, one of the Senate panel’s few Democrats to raise the issue of gun control, said that “without having a discussion about those rights and limits associated therewith, this will be an incomplete discussion.”
Still, it’s the delays and mistakes in the law enforcement response at Robb Elementary School that are the focus of federal, state and local investigations.
The state’s public safety chief said Tuesday that police had enough officers and firepower at the school to stop Ramos three minutes after he entered the building but they instead waited more than an hour before storming the classroom and killing him.
McCraw outlined a series of missed opportunities, communication breakdowns and errors based on an investigation that has included roughly 700 interviews. He also directed much of the blame at Pete Arredondo, the Uvalde school district police chief who McCraw said was the commander in charge.
Arredondo, who testified Tuesday at a closed-door hearing of a Texas House committee, has said he didn’t consider himself in charge and assumed someone else had taken control. He has declined repeated requests for comment from The Associated Press.
Uvalde’s mayor pushed back on McCraw’s casting blame on Arredondo, saying the Department of Public Safety has repeatedly put out false information about the shooting and glossed over the role of its own officers.
Public pressure has grown for state and local officials to release more information.
On Wednesday, state Sen. Roland Gutierrez, who represents Uvalde, filed a lawsuit seeking to force the Texas Department of Public Safety to turn over its records related to its investigation into the shooting. The victims’ families “deserve to know the complete, unalterable truth about what happened that day,” a lawyer for the Democrat wrote in the suit.
Bleiberg reported from Dallas. Associated Press writer John Seewer in Toledo, Ohio, contributed to this report.
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