Shared from the 9/6/2019 Houston Chronicle eEdition

Abbott targets ‘suspicious activity’

Orders issued to beef up state’s reporting system — but still no special session

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Abbott

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Mark Lambie / Associated Press

Walmart customers are escorted from the store after a gunman opened fire in El Paso. Gov. Greg Abbott issued a series of executive orders aimed at collecting information in hopes of preventing mass violence.

AUSTIN — Seth Ator wasn’t supposed to have a gun. He had reportedly failed a background check due to a “mental health” issue when trying to buy a firearm in 2014.

He obtained one anyway from a private seller, avoiding a background check. His neighbors said he would shoot his gun from the second-floor window of the shack where he lived in West Odessa, often picking off rabbits in the night.

Some referred to him as “El Loco” — the crazy one. He killed seven people in a rampage in Odessa and Midland Saturday. It was the second mass shooting in Texas in August, after another 22 people died when a lone gunman opened fire at an El Paso Walmart.

Democrats have demanded that Gov. Greg Abbott call a special legislative session to address gun violence. Instead, on Thursday Abbott instead issued a series of executive orders meant to strengthen a statewide reporting system to collect information on suspicious activities and people, in hopes of preventing future massacres.

Abbott ordered the Texas Department of Public Safety to work more closely with law enforcement to gather intelligence and analyze potential threats, and launched a public awareness campaign for the Texas Suspicious Activity Reporting Network, encouraging residents to report information about potential gunmen.

“Texas must achieve several objectives to better protect our communities and our residents from mass shootings” Abbott said in a statement. “One of those objectives is to marshal law enforcement resources to stop violent criminals before they commit mass murders. But more must be done.”

The governor issued a series of executive orders which include requiring the DPS to develop standard questions, guidance and training for law enforcement agencies across the state to better utilize the network, build threat assessment teams and beef up staff at centers that collect and respond to reports of suspicious activity.

Texas House Democrats, who on Wednesday implored Abbott to call a special session to tighten gun restrictions, were quiet about the governor’s executive orders, saying only that they still want a special session. A private sector security consultant applauded the governor’s move to better inform the public about reporting suspicious activity.

Last year, there were 27 mass attacks that harmed at least three people in the U.S. Collectively, 91 people were killed and 107 others were injured in places like schools, workplaces and other public areas, according to the United State Secret Service National Threat Assessment Center.

About half of those attacks were motivated by a grievance related to the workplace, a domestic situation or other personal issue, according to the the center’s 2018 report on mass attacks in public spaces. Two-thirds of attackers that year had ahistory of exhibiting mental illness, such as depressive, suicidal or psychotic symptoms.

Nearly all had suffered at least one significant stressor in the last five years. Almost all the attackers made threatening or concerning comments, according to the report, with more than three-quarters eliciting concern from family, neighbors or other citizens before their attacks.

Still, identifying people who may commit mass murders is a challenge, said Fred Burton, a former counter-terrorism agent with the U.S. State Department. Police are good at reacting as first responders, but identifying and investigating people who are planning mass shootings is a different kind of science and requires more resources, he said.

“You are in many ways looking for needles in haystacks and at times you can’t find that needle until after the incident, it’s sad to say,” said Burton, vice president of intelligence at Stratfor, a security and intelligence firm based in Austin.

It often takes acitizen or family member to report suspicious activity for law enforcement to intervene before an attack takes place, and authorities need aprocess to triage that information, he said.

The DPS recorded 5,174 documented and reported accounts of suspicious activity over a two-year period, according to a report dated in November of 2016, the latest available. Officials at DPS did not respond to questions about the Texas Suspicious Activity Reporting Network on Thursday.

The governor’s executive orders also require counties receiving grants from the governor’s office to report at least 90 percent of criminal convictions within seven business days to the Criminal Justice Information System at the public safety department. That seven-day requirement will take effect Jan. 1, 2020 and will quicken to a five-day requirement in 2021. This change appears to be aimed at strengthening the National Instant Criminal Background System for gun purchases.

Some Democrats suggested that Abbott is not going far enough.

“Not one of these orders mentions guns …,” tweeted Democratic presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke from El Paso.

Abbott has so far resisted the Democrats’ demand to call lawmakers back to Austin, saying lawmakers first need to build consensus on legislation. Meanwhile, the governor and the Legislature have assembled several committees to study what can be done to prevent future mass shootings.

The Associated Press contributed to this report. andrea.zelinski

@chron.com

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