Gun laws sidelined in US shooting inquiry

·3-min read

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 mention of 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 counsellors and mental health professionals.

Only near the end of Wednesday's hearing in the Texas Capitol was there much talk about gun laws. And even then it received little acknowledgement.

No public officials or families from Uvalde testified during the two days of hearings.

The bungled response to the attack that left 19 children and two teachers dead before police killed the shooter at Robb Elementary has infuriated the nation, and a recent wave of deadly mass shootings has renewed a push for tighter gun laws.

By week's end, the US Senate could pass new legislation to toughen background checks for the youngest firearms buyers and require more sellers to conduct background checks.

But the Republican-dominated committee examining the tragedy in Uvalde appeared to have little appetite for new gun laws, even after a series of mass shootings in Texas that have killed more than 85 people in the past five years - at an El Paso Walmart, a church in Sutherland Springs, Santa Fe High School outside Houston and in West Texas oil country.

The state's legislature has spent the last decade chipping away at restrictions.

Texas does not require a permit to carry a long rifle like the one used in Uvalde. Last year, politicians made it legal for anyone 21 or older to carry a handgun in public without a license, background check or training.

The gunman at Robb Elementary was a former student, Salvador Ramos, who bought the weapon used in the attack right after his 18th birthday.

Nicole Golden, executive director of Texas Gun Sense, told the committee tighter gun controls may have prevented past mass shootings in Texas and urged state politicians to consider a so-called 'red-flag' law and require background checks on private firearms sales.

"I've never seen anything like this past month in terms of the outrage, despair and heartbreak," Golden said.

"Texas is facing a crisis, one we know we've faced a long time."

She got no questions from the Republican politicians on the panel.

Senator Bob Hall tried to steer 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," Hall said on Tuesday as the hearings began in Austin, 260 kilometres from Uvalde.

"And so it's not the gun, it's the person."

The delays and mistakes in the law enforcement response at Robb Elementary School have so far been the focus of federal, state and local investigations.

Steve McCraw, director of the Texas Department of Public Safety, said on Tuesday police had enough officers and firepower at the school to stop Ramos three minutes after he entered the building.

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 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 on Tuesday at a closed-door hearing of a Texas House committee, has said he did not consider himself in charge and assumed someone else had taken control.

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.

On Wednesday, Uvalde Consolidated Independent School District Superintendent Hal Harrell said that he put Arredondo on administrative leave because the facts of what happened remain unclear.

Public pressure has grown for state and local officials to release more information.

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