This unsettling terrain has been covered in the past. Back in 2008, Austin’s KVUE reported that within the Austin Independent School District alone, 637 employees had criminal records, with 36 having faced felony charges. That same year WFAA in Dallas-Fort Worth reported a similar story about the Dallas Independent School District; according to a local blog, the station reported that 1,300 employees—fully 13 percent—had criminal histories of one sort or another, and twenty had disqualifying histories. But the TV stations appear not to have checked their own archives. We found no mention this pertinent information in recent coverage of the assorted guns-in-schools proposals.
What other bits of context have generally gone missing? A closer look at public opinion, for one thing. It’s widely known that guns are a part of life in Texas: though the state’s 26 million people reside mostly in its sprawling cities, rural tradition still runs deep, and last year the Texas Department of Public Safety issued 149,105 concealed carry licenses. (Full disclosure: We both keep guns at home.) But the aforementioned January poll by Public Policy Polling found that Texans actually favor a ban on assault weapons, 49 to 41 percent. It’s a single survey, to be sure, but that’s a striking finding that warrants a closer look. But only a Houston Chronicle blog post and the alternative weekly, The Dallas Observer, have noted the poll findings, according to a recent Google search.
The coverage has also tended to ignore political motives among, well, politicians. It’s common knowledge that Attorney General Greg Abbott is interested in the governor’s mansion; he produced an advertising campaign last month that ran on media web sites in Manhattan and Albany and urged New York gun owners to move to Texas. The San Antonio Express-News didn’t mention Abbott’s ambitions in its initial coverage of his ads, though the paper did in a later article. The Austin American-Statesman noted the ads were paid for by Abbott’s campaign, but seemed to accept that they were aimed at New York lawmakers, not Texas primary voters.
Recent press coverage—like state legislators—hasn’t really examined gun violence in Texas, either. In 2011, Texas had 2.9 gun murders per 100,000 residents, according to The Guardian. That’s lower than, say, New York’s gun murder rate, but assaults and robberies using a gun here are more than double the rate in New York, which has far stricter gun control, and even higher than California’s rate. There are more gun-related murders, assaults and robberies in Texas than the national average, too, according the UK-based Guardian. Oddly, these statistics have not made it into coverage of the gun debate here.
Of course, some reporters have connected (some of) the dots. The liberal Texas Observer, for one, did recently make the point that day-to-day gun violence takes more lives than high profile-rampages. And when the governor said he favored improved mental health service to head off mass shootings, Dallas Morning News reporter Robert Garrett pointed out that Texas ranks 49th out of 50 states in spending on mental health care. But a Feb. 2 article in the Austin American-Statesman discusses ways in which proposed regulations could fall short in stopping mass killings, without noting, again, that most firearm deaths do not result from high-profile rampages. In San Antonio, the Express-News has editorialized against arming teachers as just a bad idea, but its news coverage is similar to the rest.
Editors and reporters need to see beyond the narrow gun debate as defined by what legislators say on any given day or propose in Austin, and ask big-picture, common sense questions. There’s a lot of ground to cover, but on the particular subject of the guns-for-teachers proposals, these questions include: How safe are schools, really, as a place to put weapons? Are teachers really qualified to defend 30 people? How do you safeguard guns on campus from a few bad apples? Why not hire more cops? Is the teacher screening program working well if some districts are not compliant? Is the Legislature overlooking obvious concerns or inconvenient data?
Or how about this one: Teachers with guns. Really?
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