First, a story about locks and why an obsession with locking school doors is not really going to improve safety.
In the aftermath of school shootings like the one in Uvalde, what can get overlooked is basic: Schools need doors that work and don’t require special knowledge or keys to secure; they need locks that can be accessed from inside classrooms; and a system for accessing master keys swiftly when minutes matter.
The day of the Robb Elementary School shooting, a teacher had propped open the west exterior door of the school’s west building—added to the school campus 23 years ago—to get food from a colleague, when she saw the shooter heading toward the building. She slammed the door shut, according to the teacher’s attorney, Don Flanary. The door should have kept the shooter out—or at least delayed his entry. It didn’t. Contrary to school policy, all three of the west building’s exterior doors were unlocked that day.
The west building’s exterior doors weren’t the only problem on May 24. Several of the classroom doors had problems latching, including room 111—the classroom through which the shooter “most likely” entered, per the Texas House of Representatives investigation report. KENS5 further reported that the door’s bolt didn’t fit its frame. In addition, Texas Department of Public Safety Director Steven McCraw said that the strike plate that allows the door to latch was damaged.
Whatever the cause, securing the door required extra effort to ensure the latch engaged. Room 111 was not the only classroom whose door had problems. The fourth-grade teacher in room 109 testified in the Texas House report that she also “slammed [her] door shut because otherwise the lock would not [otherwise] latch.”
According to the Texas House report, Arnulfo Reyes, the teacher in Room 111, had alerted school administrators multiple times about the issue with the door prior to May 24. Yet a work order was never issued nor was there documentation of Reyes’ complaint in Robb Elementary maintenance records.
Part of the reason doors were propped open or left unlocked was because of a key shortage. The manufacturer had discontinued production of the door locks used at Robb; the school district had acquired a supply of key blanks, but those were gone by May 2022, Uvalde CISD Maintenance & Operations Director Rodney Harrison said in the Texas House report. Because of the key shortage, substitute teachers were told to use magnets and other methods to get around the locks in violation of school district policy.
Reading this story, and because I have a cybersecurity mindset, reminded me of two things. One is that there’s always a tradeoff between security and ease of use. Think about passwords. People use simple passwords and reuse the same password on multiple systems and fail to enable two-factor authentication because it’s easier that way, and because there’s a big price to pay for forgetting a password and getting locked out of an account or application that you really need. Finding shortcuts and conveniences and workarounds is human nature. You can spend a ton of money on fancy security systems – the story talks about how much money school districts have had to spend, usually via bond issuances that can be hard to convince voters to support, to meet new state requirements for physical security in schools. But if these systems don’t take the human factor into account, a lot of that money is wasted.
And two, no single security measure is ever sufficient on its own. This is why effective cybersecurity for an enterprise network is all about multiple layered, redundant, overlapping defense mechanisms. We expect there to be gaps and failures and weaknesses, which is why there are backups in place. You can “harden” schools all you want, but you can’t make them safe until you address the gun problem, and that’s something our Legislature just won’t do as things stand now.
It has become a mournful pattern. Following mass shootings, lawmakers in many states have taken stock of what happened and voted to approve gun control legislation to try to prevent additional bloodshed.
In Colorado, the Legislature passed universal background checks in 2013 after a shooter at an Aurora movie theater killed 12 people. After 58 people were shot dead during a 2017 concert in Las Vegas, the Nevada Legislature passed a red flag law that allows a judge to order that weapons be taken from people who are deemed a threat. And in Florida in 2018, then-Gov. Rick Scott signed a bill that raised the minimum age to buy a firearm to 21 after a teenager with a semi-automatic rifle opened fire at a Parkland high school, killing 17 people.
But not in Texas.
In the past six decades, the state has experienced at least 19 mass shootings that have killed a total of nearly 200 people and wounded more than 230 others. Yet state leaders have repeatedly batted away measures that would limit access to guns, opting instead to ease restrictions on publicly carrying them while making it harder for local governments to regulate them.
As the state Legislature convenes for the first time since the Uvalde school shooting last May, lawmakers have once again filed a slate of gun control bills. If history is an indicator, and top legislative leaders predict it will be, they are unlikely to pass.
An analysis by ProPublica and The Texas Tribune of hundreds of bills filed in the Texas Legislature over nearly the past six decades found that at least two dozen measures would have prevented people from legally obtaining the weapons, including assault rifles and large-capacity magazines, used in seven of the state’s mass shootings.
At least five bills would have required that people seeking to obtain a gun undergo a background check. Such a check would have kept the man involved in a 2019 shooting spree in Midland and Odessa from legally purchasing the weapon because he had been deemed to have a mental illness.
Seven bills would have banned the sale or possession of the semi-automatic rifle that a shooter used to kill dozens of people at an El Paso Walmart in 2019.
And at least two bills would have raised the legal age to own or purchase an assault weapon from 18 to 21 years old, which would have made it illegal for the Uvalde shooter to buy the semi-automatic assault rifles.
A state House committee that investigated the Uvalde massacre found that the shooter had tried to get at least two people to buy a gun for him before he turned 18 but was unsuccessful. Immediately after his birthday, he purchased two AR-15-style rifles and thousands of rounds of ammunition, which he used to kill 19 students and two teachers at Robb Elementary School.
“If that law had been 21, I guarantee you he would have continued to be frustrated and not be able to obtain that weapon,” said state Rep. Joe Moody, a Democrat from El Paso who served as vice chair of the House committee.
It’s funny, in a bitterly ironic and painful way, that the first line of argument advanced by the legislative gun-huggers and the paid shills they listen to is that this one specific gun control law would not have stopped that one particular mass shooter, so therefore all gun control laws are useless. Yet there they are in the Lege going back to the same “harden the schools” well, time and time again. It takes a comprehensive approach, but the Republicans just won’t allow it.
Despite that, the work continues.
As a new legislative session kicks into gear, [Rep. Tracy] King is working on a bill that would increase the age limit to buy semi-automatic rifles from 18 to 21. The Uvalde gunman had tried to get at least two people to buy him firearms before he turned 18. Days after his 18th birthday, he purchased two AR-15-style rifles before invading the school and targeting students and teachers. In August, Uvalde residents and relatives of the shooting victims protested at the Capitol, calling on lawmakers to raise the age limit to buy the kind of firearms the Robb Elementary gunman used.
“In this particular case, that guy had tried to buy a gun,” said King, who previously wouldn’t support the legislation he plans to champion for his constituents. “It sure might have made a difference.”
Still, King’s legislation is a bold proposal in the state that leads the nation in gun sales and whose lawmakers have steadily loosened firearm restrictions amid eight mass shootings in 13 years. And it’s coming from a Democrat who previously voted to allow people to carry a handgun without training or a license. King hasn’t yet filed his bill, though other lawmakers have filed similar pieces of legislation this year.
Gov. Greg Abbott has dismissed the idea of raising the age limit as unconstitutional. In December, Texas dropped a fight to protect an existing state law that required people who carry handguns without licenses to be 21 or older after a federal district judge said it violates people’s Second Amendment rights. And Texas House Speaker Dade Phelan has said a proposal such as King’s lacks the votes to pass the lower chamber. But Phelan also said that “will not prevent a bill from being discussed and being debated.”
King knows he faces an uphill battle. But he’s also committed to trying, after spending nearly eight months helping folks — some of whom he knew before the tragedy — grapple with a staggering amount of loss.
“We have to go in it with our eyes open,” he said during a recent interview in his Texas Capitol office. “It’ll be a challenge. It’ll be a difficult conversation for a lot of people.”
King isn’t the only lawmaker who represents Uvalde and is pushing to limit access to semi-automatic rifles. State Sen. Roland Gutierre, a San Antonio Democrat whose district includes Uvalde, has already filed a bill in the Senate that would address the same issue.
Gutierrez has publicly criticized the law enforcement response, Texas’ loose gun laws and officials who have withheld information about the investigations into the shooting. Gutierrez has also filed legislation that would create robust mass shooting response training for all public safety entities and improve radio communication between certain agencies.
“I’m for Tracy’s bill, I’m for my bill, I’m for anybody’s bill if a Republican wants to come up and have a bill that raises the age limit on long guns right now to 21,” Gutierrez said. “We’re not taking anybody’s guns away. We’re regulating guns for what I would argue are minors, just like we do alcohol, just like we do cigarettes in Texas.”
I greatly respect what Sen. Gutierrez has been doing, and I’m glad to have Rep. King on board. I’ve also seen this movie before and I know how it ends. You know what my prescription for this problem is. If Gutierrez and King can change a few minds along the way, that will help. We have a long way to go.