When tragedy befalls us, we are often told not to bring politics into it. It’s distasteful to “politicize” a traumatic event—gauche, even. Simply not done. But some tragedies are inherently political, which forces the question: Which tragedies are OK to “politicize,” and which aren’t? The answer is simple. If the politics are to your advantage, you should try to bring politics into it as much as possible.
Two recent events in Texas bring this truth home. The first is the shooting at the church in White Settlement on December 29, in which two parishioners were killed before the shooter was himself shot by a volunteer security guard. The discussion that followed has been deranged even by our low standards for this kind of thing. If you’ve forgotten—it’s hard to keep the details of any shooting in mind for more than about a week—here’s what happened.
The shooter, who has been described in media accounts as a “drifter,” was a man who very, very much needed help that he never got. He had a long criminal record, ranging from arson to assault, and serious mental health problems. (He was ruled incompetent to stand trial in 2012 and sent to a psychiatric facility, but it’s unclear if he ever got a specific diagnosis.) He told his ex-wife he felt like he was “battling a demon.” After his brother died from an opiate overdose, he became a “religious fanatic” and eventually came in contact with the West Freeway Church of Christ in White Settlement. “He just got broken and nobody could fix him,” a childhood friend told the New York Times.
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Despite a history of domestic violence, a key red flag for potential mass shooters, and debilitating mental health issues that often resulted in violence, he got his hands on a shotgun. (Authorities still aren’t sure how he did so, but but it’s not exactly hard to get a gun in Texas.) He brought the gun to a service at West Freeway, having soured on the place. Only six seconds elapsed from the moment he busted out the gun to the time he was killed—a blink of an eye that was nonetheless long enough for him to kill two people.
No policy or set of policies can eliminate malevolent acts like this. But you don’t have to look very hard into the White Settlement story to find areas of, let’s say, potential improvement. Can the mental health and criminal justice systems be better engineered to intervene with people like the shooter before it’s too late? Are there ways to prevent people with similar problems from legally obtaining a firearm? To ask is to answer.
You will be surprised to learn, then, that the White Settlement shooting is being portrayed as something of a happy story—or at least, a policy success. That’s because the shooter was gunned down relatively quickly, and because the man who killed the shooter was carrying his gun thanks to an act of the Texas Legislature. After a year of horrific mass shootings in Texas like the ones in El Paso and Midland–Odessa in August, after which state lawmakers had to shuffle their feet and wait for attention to fade—or in Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick’s case, to call for universal background checks before quietly retreating—they finally had a reason to take a victory lap.
In 2017, a shooting at a church in Sutherland Springs left 26 dead and 20 wounded. In response, the Legislature passed two bills. The first clarified that Texans have a right to carry guns into places of worship unless explicitly prohibited. The second facilitated the creation of volunteer security teams for churches. Both bills passed with some Democratic support. In the immediate aftermath of the shooting, gun rights activists—the ones who normally shame others for “taking advantage” of deaths—jumped into the Twitter mentions of Democratic lawmakers to grill them on their past votes on church security bills.
Otherwise, their focus was on the man who killed the shooter, Jack Wilson, a firearms instructor. Here was a hero, the paradigmatic “good guy with a gun” who stopped the “bad guy with a gun.” The system works! No doubt: in what must have been a terrifying moment, Wilson’s quick thinking and decisive action doubtless saved lives. But the zeal to turn Wilson into a symbol of gun freedom soon took a grotesque turn. It’s true that the body count was low, but this was, after all, a double murder. Few double murders in history have been celebrated like this one was.
After a funeral for Richard White, one of the men killed, who had also pulled a gun, Governor Greg Abbott described the man as a fallen soldier, who “stood in the breach” like Moses did before the wrath of God, so that the “loss of life was minimized,” echoing the way generals talk about “acceptable losses.” Across the internet, gun-rights activists rejoiced. “We can forever dispense with the notion that the ‘good guy with a gun’ is a myth,” one conservative wrote, the relief almost palpable. “God bless gun culture.”
What really took the cake, though, was Patrick, that perpetual cake-taker, on yet another Fox News appearance the night after the shooting. Host Jason Chaffetz, to his credit, began the interview by centering the sad part of the story. “There were two people that lost their lives, and we have to not skip past that,” he said. “God bless those people, and I hope we do proper justice to their memory.”
There’s a brief pause before Patrick cuts in with talk of glory. “Yeah, yeah, Jason, look. There were three heroes here”—the two people who died, and Jack Wilson. Then Patrick skips ahead to the tactical rundown. It’s very hard to swing a headshot that fast, Patrick says, especially with the adrenaline flowing. “In six seconds it was over.” Wham! Bam! Pow!
“That shot was amazing,” Chaffetz says. “It was an amazing shot,” Patrick agrees.
”If Jack Wilson had not taken down that killer, there could have been ten or fifteen people killed by the time the police got there,” Patrick says. (That raises the question: What about all the churches that don’t have a Jack Wilson?) “Americans have to understand, whether you believe in owning a gun or not owning a gun, that the Democrats are dangerous.”
Remember the survivors of White Settlement when you cast your ballot this year, Patrick says, lest the Democrats “take your guns. Take your ability to protect yourself, your family, your property and your friends.” When they do so, surely, it will be because they’ve politicized another tragedy.
The second recent case comes to us courtesy of Abbott. On Friday, news broke of a stabbing in South Austin. A seriously unwell 27-year-old got in a fight in a shopping center, then ran away from police and stabbed several people. One died. Within hours, Abbott tweeted that “when all facts are revealed I bet you’ll learn that the killer was a homeless man with prior arrests,” hinting perhaps that he’d gotten foreknowledge of the man’s identity. (That’s the charitable interpretation—maybe he was just guessing.) And indeed, the man was homeless and did have a criminal record.
Abbott has been looking for opportunities to take shots at Austin’s city government over homelessness for much of the last six months, with a few misfires along the way. In October, he shared a video of yet another mentally unwell man attacking a car at an intersection, blaming Austin mayor Steve Adler and characterizing the man as an out-of-control homeless person, before it was revealed that the video was a year and a half old and the man in the video not homeless. (The governor never took down the tweet, despite pleading from the man’s family.)
This time, the governor surely felt he was on firmer footing. But on Monday, more facts were “revealed.” The killing had occurred, a sheepish Austin police chief admitted, after an officer had attempted to arrest the man for causing a disturbance, only to have his duty belt fall off, allowing the man to escape.
The issue, in other words, had to do not with the city council but with a police officer’s fatal mistake. Now that the governor has taken a keen interest in the case, though, perhaps we can make some good of it. Look forward to the Utility Belt Reform Act of 2021. Never let a crisis go to waste.