On May 18 a student walked into Santa Fe High School with a shotgun and a handgun and proceeded to kill ten people and wound thirteen others before he was arrested. In the wake of the tragedy, Houston police chief Art Acevedo, whose department was one of several agencies to respond to the scene, has publicly spoken out about a lack of effort to control gun violence and expressed frustration with what he sees as policymakers’ reluctance to successfully address the issue. On the night of the shooting, Acevedo posted a statement on Facebook saying that the event had caused him to hit “rock bottom.”
Texas Monthly: In addiction lingo, rock bottom is where things are dire enough that people are ready to make a change. With gun violence, it seems like we just keep seeing rock bottom—and then we move on and reset.
Art Acevedo: I’m talking about rock bottom for myself. And I think that [Houston] Mayor [Sylvester] Turner has reached rock bottom, and I think the rocks that are hitting bottom are spreading quickly across this country. It’s time for us to act and demand action.
TM: Did you know immediately upon posting to Facebook what would happen?
AA: No. I had started my day in Santa Fe, helping them deal with the aftermath of that horrific incident. Then we went to [the University of Texas Medical Branch at] Galveston to see John Barnes [a police officer wounded in the shooting] and his family and had a pretty emotional gathering there. Then I got back into the city for our annual memorial to remember our fallen colleagues. And then you start thinking of all the officers who were murdered and you wonder, “Have we done enough to try to keep guns in the right hands?” So it’s time to push hard.
TM: You quickly clarified that you weren’t talking about gun control.
AA: Let’s face it: people want to evoke reactions. I have never talked about gun control. Those are words that are being put in my mouth. To me, it’s not about gun control. It’s about maintaining access and having steps to give access to firearms to law-abiding people of sound mind. That’s not about controlling and getting rid of guns. That’s about keeping guns in the hands of the good guys. We need a universal background check throughout the nation with real teeth. If you’re going to sell a firearm at a gun show, you shouldn’t be able to say, “Well, I’m a private seller,” and then sell it to whoever has a thousand bucks.
TM: What’s it feel like, having the NRA target you?
AA: I’m not surprised, but they need to be very careful, because there are legal limits to their mischaracterization. They’d better be careful that they don’t do things that would evoke a response that will end up doing harm to me and my family. If anybody knows my history, I’m not afraid to fight back.
TM: It’s not as if you haven’t been a target of criticism before.
AA: Oh, God, no. But there’s criticism and then there’s outright lies and mischaracterizations designed to evoke the wrath of people who, if you mention anything about firearms, don’t even hear what you’re saying. I’m not going to stand for that.
TM: It truly is the third rail.
AA: Yeah, it’s a third rail. But you know what? There’s a new generation. Every year, I think, there’s more than three million kids who turn eighteen. They’re going to turn this country around because we’re living in an upside-down world where the youth are the adults and the adults—we’re all a bunch of cowards, me included [for not speaking out strongly enough]. Shame on me that I haven’t been more forceful in pushing back on the false narrative that police chiefs want to take away people’s guns. That’s not our objective. I don’t ever want to have the burden of living with the thought that I didn’t do everything I could [to address this safety issue].
TM: What are you most proud of from the past year and a half that you’ve led this department?
AA: I’m most proud of the men and women of the Houston Police Department. We’re one of the fastest-growing big cities of over a million people in the country. We have 300 fewer officers today than twenty years ago, when we had roughly 500,000 fewer residents. Geographically, at 640 square miles, this is probably one of the biggest cities in the country. My first year here with this team, we had a Super Bowl. We had officers shot; one was paralyzed, whom we’re still fighting for. And we had a little event that we called Harvey. I told my officers and my command team that people will be talking about the response of this department to Harvey for generations to come.
TM: A predecessor of yours, Lee Brown, went on to become mayor of Houston. Have you considered public office?
AA: I have not considered public office. I don’t think I’m electable. I’m too far to the left for the right. I’m too far to the right for the left. California [where Acevedo grew up] is to the left what Texas is to the right. Both are too extreme for most of us right now. But I know this: California ain’t going to go anywhere toward the center in my lifetime. But Texas is going to make a turn toward the middle. It’s going to find a sweet spot. And as great as it is to live here now, it’s going to be not only the best place to live in this country, it’s going to be the best place on earth.
TM: And that makes you electable in a new Texas.
AA: I don’t know about that. I’m not interested—I already get beat up enough.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.