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Texas politicians are slow to act on both guns and mental health


After a gunman killed eight people at a mall in Allen, Texas, earlier this month, the public debate over what to do about it quickly settled into two familiar corners - strengthen gun laws or improve mental health support. From member station KERA in Dallas, Caroline Love reports that wherever they land on the issue, Texas politicians are not rushing to act.

CAROLINE LOVE, BYLINE: A day after a heavily armed gunman randomly shot 15 people, killing eight, at an outlet mall, Republican politicians in Texas were quick to blame mental health, not guns.


GREG ABBOTT: We are working to address that anger and violence by going to its root cause, which is addressing the mental health problems behind it.

KEITH SELF: We have people, though, with mental health that we're not taking care of.

JEFF LEACH: I'm not sure there are any bills in front of us this morning this session that could have prevented this. I don't know. I don't know.

LOVE: That was Governor Greg Abbott on Fox News, U.S, Representative Keith Self on CNN and Texas State Representative Jeff Leach on the House floor after the shooting. Blaming mental health is a scapegoat, says Nicole Golden with the gun reform group Texas Gun Sense.

NICOLE GOLDEN: For those who know that they're not going to vote with us for political reasons on sensible gun safety measures are trying to distract and divert the conversation.

LOVE: Golden says if mental health was really the main cause, lawmakers should strengthen background checks and pass red flag laws. The Pentagon confirmed that the gunman had been discharged from the Army for mental health reasons in 2008. But it's uncommon for people with mental health struggles to turn so violent. In fact, most are victims of violence, says Allison Moore Boulware. She's with the Hogg Foundation for Mental Health. She worries about linking mental health struggles and mass shootings.

ALISON MOHR BOLEWARE: The last thing we want is to increase stigma so that people are unwilling to get help that they need.

LOVE: Texas ranked last in access to mental health care in Mental Health America's most recent report. There are rural areas without enough providers. And nearly 800,000 adult Texans with a mental illness are uninsured as the state has not expanded Medicaid. Texas lawmakers are trying to increase some mental health funding. A spokesman for Governor Abbott says he's in budget talks to raise mental health spending by about $2 billion. For gun rights groups, the focus on more mental health services instead of gun restrictions is welcome. Chris McNutt with Texas Gun Rights says gun reform won't solve mass shootings.

CHRIS MCNUTT: They want to take the guns. You know, we're telling everybody, like, no, you're not going to take our guns. And it's just - we see that time and time again, and nothing gets solved.

LOVE: Time is running out to pass meaningful legislation on guns or mental health before the session ends. So Texans could be stuck in the same debate the next time there's a mass shooting. For NPR News, I'm Caroline Love in Dallas.

(SOUNDBITE OF TENDAI SONG, "TIME IN OUR LIVES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Caroline Love