Governor Greg Abbott’s remarks, at a press conference soon after the bloodbath, were strong and unambiguous. The state had to firmly respond to “one of the most heinous attacks that we’ve ever seen in the history of Texas schools,” he said forcefully. “We need to do more than just pray for the victims and their families.” Texas, and Abbott personally, had a responsibility, he said, “to step up and make sure that this action is never repeated ever again in the history of the state of Texas.”
That was in 2018, when a shooter killed eight students and two teachers, and injured thirteen others, one morning at Santa Fe High School, southeast of Houston. By the afternoon, Abbott was at the school to talk about potential legislative responses. His promise that such shootings would never again happen was welcome. In the coming weeks and months, he vowed he would engage legislators and tour the state, “assembl[ing] all stakeholders to begin to work immediately on swift solutions to prevent tragedies like this from ever happening again.”
In 2019, the next time the Legislature convened, lawmakers passed bills attempting to “harden” schools by adding defensive measures and making it easier to screen for students who exhibited warning signs that they might commit violence. Gun restrictions were off the table, but after the session Abbott expressed his pride that he signed “seventeen bills” into law. It’s always a tell when politicians brag about the quantity of legislation they pass. Bills can be as flimsy as the paper they’re printed on. But there was real money behind some of the laws, and Abbott bragged too that Texas had spent some $600 million.
The Legislature skipped town for its year-and-a-half hiatus at the end of May 2019. That August, a white supremacist with an assault rifle killed 23 and injured 23 more at an El Paso Walmart. Twenty-eight days later and a few hours away, a man in Midland-Odessa murdered 7 and injured 25 with another assault rifle. The acts of violence were horrific, but the governor could say he technically had kept his promise, because these were not school shootings.
In the aftermath of the two mass shootings in 2019, Abbott was less effusive about his capability to fix things, but he queued up two more talkfests: the grandly named Texas Safety Commission and a domestic terrorism task force. These bodies did not accomplish much of note, but a meeting of the Texas Safety Commission offered Abbott a venue to briefly apologize for using language in a fund-raising pitch the day before the El Paso shooting that resembled words the shooter used in his manifesto. (The shooter believed in the “great replacement” conspiracy theory that holds that immigration is a plot by Democrats to erode the power of white Republicans. At his fundraiser, Abbott had warned supporters that liberals sought to enable illegal immigration to “turn Texas blue” and that the state needed to be “defended” against the “invasion.”)
After that apology, Texas had a lucky run for a while: no mass shootings with more than a handful dead, possibly because the pandemic interfered. But two weeks ago, four years after the Santa Fe shooting, an eighteen-year-old gunman armed with a modified AR-15 killed 21 and wounded 17 at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde. The similarities with Santa Fe were uncanny. One difference: Abbott had spoken to the annual NRA convention two weeks before the 2018 shooting. In the case of the one at Robb Elementary, he was scheduled to speak the Friday after. (He ultimately sent a video message instead of going in person.)
When Abbott took the stage in Uvalde the day after that city’s shooting, he was circumspect, perhaps cognizant that he had promised four years before to prevent exactly this from happening. After a brief acknowledgement that access to mental health care is deficient in Uvalde’s corner of the state, Abbott turned to blaming the shooting on “evil” that has always existed and always will, with the implication that there’s little we can do about it. “Anybody who shoots his grandmother in the face has to have evil in his heart,” he said. Children are “filled with laughter, innocence, and joy. Their love is a gift that parents get to unwrap every single day.”
Abbott added that “It is intolerable, it is unacceptable for us to have in the state anybody who would kill little kids in our schools.” It was a statement with which Texans no doubt agree, but, like Abbott’s immortal vow to “eliminate all rapists” from the streets of the state, rather than allow abortions for victims of rape, it is a promise that he seems unlikely to fulfill.
Last Wednesday night Beto O’Rourke, Abbott’s opponent in this year’s gubernatorial election, spoke at the Thurgood Marshall Recreation Center in South Dallas, in a part of town that has seen more than its share of gun violence over the years. Throughout the event, residents told the candidate their stories of losing loved ones to gun crime. But the purpose of the gathering for O’Rourke was to announce a plan to make schools safer. His proposal included several of the gun control measures that are most popular—such as requiring universal background checks, which boasted 80 percent support among Texans in one 2020 poll, a level of popularity that would make almost any other policy a no-brainer in the Legislature.
The issue of guns has always been tricky for O’Rourke. The most notable moment during his failed presidential campaign—at least as far as it attenuated his future in Texas politics—came when, on a debate stage, he endorsed seizing high-powered rifles already in circulation. “Hell yes, we’re going to take your AR-15,” he said, going much further than most pro–gun control Democrats are ready to go. This assertion was widely seen as one that would doom him in Texas, although the polling on the issue is more complicated: a survey of 1,999 registered voters conducted soon after O’Rourke’s comments found that more Texans, and more independents in Texas, supported mandatory gun buybacks of assault weapons than opposed them. (Meanwhile 46 percent of Texas Republicans polled opposed buybacks, against 34 percent who supported them—and it is Republicans whose primaries have selected our statewide officials for the past 27 years.)
While blunt force was the order of the day in the Democratic presidential primary, O’Rourke’s main strength, exhibited chiefly during his 2018 Senate race against Ted Cruz, is his willingness to engage with controversial topics, such as NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s protests, in a reassuring and clearheaded way. The gun seizure comments got the most play during his presidential campaign. But guns were also the subject of what was arguably the best moment of that bid, when he unloaded heartfelt anger and frustration in the aftermath of the shooting in El Paso, his hometown. So while the issue of guns seemed likely to handicap his campaign for governor, I wondered if he could turn it into an asset.
In Dallas, the more subtle iteration of O’Rourke returned. It’s typical for those who oppose even modest gun control measures to accuse their opponents of being driven by emotion, or the panic of the moment. This presupposes that there is an unemotional way one can imagine a ten-year-old being shredded by rifle bullets. O’Rourke leaned into the emotion.
He began with the story of his daughter’s recent middle school graduation. It was bittersweet in the way parental landmarks always are, he said. “There’s nothing I love more in the world than those three human beings,” he said of his children. “I was meeting this day a week ago with parents in Uvalde who had lost the person they loved most in the world,” O’Rourke continued. “This moment calls for us to try to imagine what that would feel like . . . the pain, the grief, the suffering, the absolute disbelief.” Their experience, and ours watching it, “has become so numbingly common.”
The governor, O’Rourke noted, had blamed evil for the attack. The shooter’s actions could be called evil, O’Rourke said, there could be little doubt. “But can you control evil? That’s up to God and the Devil,” he said. “That’s out of my hands.” He argued that school shootings were just one aspect of the many ways Abbott’s administration had failed children—which included hundreds of deaths in a broken foster care system and children who froze to death in last year’s blackout.
Why was it so hard to change things, one audience member asked. “I think about this every day with regards to Greg Abbott,” O’Rourke replied. “Does he wake up every day and want kids to be shot in schools?” Of course not, O’Rourke said, just as Abbott didn’t take office to oversee the catastrophic collapse of the electrical grid. Whatever his personal preferences might be, Abbott was constrained, O’Rourke said, by the institutional and political realities that put him in power, among which is an ironclad alliance with the voters most averse to any regulation of firearms. Because Abbott had to worry very little about voters in the general election and had to worry a great deal about the Republican primary, he would never reconsider his stance on gun restrictions. Until the political incentives changed, nothing else would. The only way out, O’Rourke said, was to beat Abbott in the general election and prove that elected officials needed to worry about the middle again.
Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick, to his credit, has always been forthright in stating that he intends to do nothing about guns in the Texas Senate that he rules with an iron fist. After the Santa Fe shootings, he said that the school had too many doors and exits for shooters to enter, and that the state needed to redesign its schools. That was darkly funny then, because it doesn’t take an especially high-wattage brain to imagine ways in which a school with few exits could be turned into a trap by a suicidally murderous shooter. But it has since become a sort of conventional wisdom, or at least a favored talking point, among elected Republicans.
Last week Patrick announced a talkfest of his own: the Senate Special Committee to Protect All Texans. The name is banal, like that of one of Abbott’s commissions. But in its composition, it offers a big middle finger to anyone who thinks the Uvalde shooting could bring about real change. The committee consists of three Democrats and eight Republicans, though Democrats comprise 40 percent of the upper chamber. The Republicans on the committee are some of the Senate’s loudest opponents of gun regulations. Notably absent from the commission is the state senator for Uvalde, Roland Gutierrez, who previously called for a special legislative session on gun violence. Also absent is any senator from a community affected by recent mass shootings, such as El Paso Democrat César Blanco, Midland-Odessa Republican Kel Seliger, and Santa Fe Republican Larry Taylor. (The latter two aren’t returning next session, but it’s unlikely they’d be on a committee anyway, because Patrick doesn’t like them.)
Patrick’s committee will put forth “solutions” more than six months from now, during the next regular session of the Legislature. Democrats and at least two Republicans have called for a special session of the Legislature—only Abbott can order one—and while the governor hasn’t ruled it out, he doesn’t need the headache, especially in an election year.
He has not, however, totally given up on preventing the next shooting. In the aftermath of Santa Fe, Abbott vowed that he would look for “swift solutions.” In the aftermath of the Uvalde shooting, he vowed to look for “real solutions.” Restrictions on guns would not mitigate shootings, he said at a press conference, because Chicago has some restrictions and still has a high level of violent crime. The point was misleading: Illinois has minimal gun restrictions, and most guns used in crime in Chicago come from outside the state.
Abbott noted that teenagers such as the Uvalde shooter have long had the ability to buy rifles, but school shootings were a relatively recent phenomenon. Therefore, it must be Americans’ deteriorating mental health, not access to guns, that explains the spike in mass murders. Patrick, seated next to Abbott, laid blame elsewhere, pointing the finger at the “dechristianization” of America. “If we don’t turn back as a nation to understanding what we were founded on, what we were taught by our parents and what we believe in, these situations are just going to get worse,” he said.
Taken at their word, Abbott and Patrick believe they are governing a Texas where a growing proportion of the population is dealing with pervasive mental illness, some of whom are possibly demonically touched, who are farther than ever from God, and more and more capable of committing evil and violent acts. They also believe that everyone in this population should have nearly unregulated access to military-grade weapons.
At the press conference, reporters had a few chances to press the question. Why hadn’t gun restrictions been on the table after Santa Fe, when Abbott vowed “never again,” one asked. Unlike after the 2018 shooting, when he had accepted responsibility for change, Abbott adopted the passive voice. In 2019, “pretty much every issue was raised by one legislator or another about potential ways to address shootings like this and the consensus arose around those seventeen bills that I did sign,” he said, referring to the laws “hardening” schools and so forth. No matter what Texans at large support, lawmakers alone dictated possibilities. “Solutions like those were the solutions that were agreed upon by legislators at the time, and a similar approach, I perceive, is the one that legislators will take this time.”
A scrum of microphones recorded audio on the table before him. One was for CCTV, a broadcaster controlled by the publicity department of the Chinese Communist party. It was easy to imagine Abbott’s comments being packaged into a story for domestic consumption in China about how, while it might sound like a nice idea, democracy doesn’t work in practice.