HOUSTON—The media swarm that surrounded Santa Fe High School after Friday’s mass shooting has mostly dissipated. Cars and trucks once again speed past the campus on Highway 6, a two-lane divided road flanked by open pastures, ramshackle antique shops, and burger joints. A memorial of 10 white crosses surrounded by now-wilted flowers and stuffed animals offers the only visible reminder of the horror that unfolded at the school just five days ago.
Santa Fe, fiercely independent, like the rest of Texas, has turned in on its grief and resisted attempts to be made into the image of Parkland, Fla. Students and parents there became overnight celebrities in their campaign to end gun violence after the Valentine’s Day shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. Santa Fe residents just want to grieve in peace.
Locals’ unwillingness to entertain national media outlets longer than necessary may have contributed to what feels like a rapid loss of interest in this story. But the community’s approach to guns and gun control also seems like a mitigating factor. The national media narrative has focused on Texans’ stubborn refusal to give up their guns. The headline of one Associated Press story declared, “School shooting may not bring change to gun-loving Texas.” The implication? There’s nothing for “reasonable” people to see here, so let’s move on.
Texas leaders have vowed to bring change, just not the kind of change gun-control advocates want.
Hours after sheriff’s deputies took 17-year-old accused shooter Dimitrios Pagourtzis into custody, a bevy of top state officials stood under a bright blue canopy just outside the school entrance and promised to do more than offer “thoughts and prayers.” Gov. Greg Abbott announced a series of roundtable discussions on school safety, and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick said policymakers would consider facility changes to make it harder for would-be shooters to come on campus undetected: “There are too many entrances and too many exits to our over 8,000 campuses in Texas.” One of my friends who works as an assistant principal at a south Houston high school put that into perspective: His campus has 50 entrances and exits. He said administrators there feel helpless to protect their students in such an open environment.
The day before Abbott held his first school safety meeting, federal education officials released video of a similar meeting hosted in Washington last week. Presenters there urged Education Secretary Betsy DeVos to scrutinize instances of thwarted school shootings. “We could learn so much from studying how attacks have been prevented,” Marisa Reddy Randazzo, the former chief research psychologist for the U.S. Secret Service, told DeVos. Two other panelists urged educators to emphasize programs that help students better manage their emotions and make good decisions.
Texas leaders on Tuesday also discussed mental health and bullying, a stubborn problem the father of the Santa Fe shooting suspect, Antonios Pagourtzis, claims may have contributed to his son’s otherwise incomprehensible actions. School officials issued a strongly worded denunciation of claims the younger Pagourtzis suffered bullying. And fellow students gave conflicting accounts of the teen’s on-campus experience. While one student described Pagourtzis as “weird” and a “loner,” others said he just seemed quiet, but not abnormally so. Most expressed shock when they learned he was the suspected shooter.
Perhaps the Parkland shooting continued to make headlines for so long because it offered so many opportunities for reform: gun purchasing age limits, so-called assault weapons restrictions, mental health warning signs, campus policing failures. The Santa Fe shooting provided much less for legislators to latch onto.
“Every time there’s a shooting, everyone wants to talk about what the problem is,” Abbott said before Tuesday’s school safety roundtable meeting. “By now, we know what the problem is. The problem is innocent people are being shot. That must be stopped.”
But how to stop it remains agonizingly intractable. Pagourtzis used guns to kill two teachers and eight classmates, but he also brought homemade bombs. He snuck the weapons into the school, but he just as easily could have attacked his victims in the parking lot. People who want to kill others will find a way. His journals indicate he planned the attack for months, but he showed virtually no other signs of his murderous intent.
Nearly a week before the Santa Fe shooting, Abbott spoke at the National Rifle Association conference in Dallas. In what now seems like a prescient speech, he summed up the reason legislators can’t stop every killer every time, no matter how many laws they pass: “The problem is not guns. The problem is hearts without God.”