On Tuesday, as the world knows already, an 18-year-old man carried an AR-15-style rifle into a 574-student elementary school just off Highway 83 in the town of Uvalde, 90 minutes west of San Antonio. Unobstructed by police, he barricaded himself in a 4th grade classroom and unleashed hell on earth, slaying 19 children and two teachers—the worst school shooting in Texas history. After an hour, as frantic parents panicked outside, law enforcement finally killed the man.
In moments like these, maddeningly frequent, what is it we expect from our political leaders? The answer varies according to partisanship. But, generally, we want a leader who feels what we feel, who tells the truth, and who plausibly promises policies to address the problem—the first being a salve for public wounds, the second a necessity for democracy, and the third the literal job description of those in power. With Texas’ governor, you’ll get none of this, and you may as well like it, because he’s not changing.
Shortly after the massacre, Governor Greg Abbott first addressed the shooting at a news conference. In a state that had seen five other mass shootings in his tenure, four of which involved similar assault-style rifles, Abbott said—with passionless delivery—that the killer acted “incomprehensibly.” Without any specifics whatsoever, he pledged the state would “do everything that is necessary” to prevent a seventh bloodbath. Then, he stopped by a fundraiser five hours away.
The state’s leading daily papers pilloried the governor’s performance. “If he couldn’t get choked up over little kids, is he likely to budge from the state GOP’s hard-line resistance to any changes in gun laws? In a word, no,” wrote Bob Garrett in the Dallas Morning News. Over at the Houston Chronicle, the editorial board added: “No one, especially not the governor of a state with some of the most inept, irresponsible and dangerous gun laws in the nation, should be confused, somehow unable to comprehend, the reasons for this never-ending tragedy.”
The next day in Uvalde, it was almost like Abbott had taken notes. In his second press conference, he deployed a teary voice repeatedly, pausing long enough that it couldn’t be missed. He began by saying that “evil swept across Uvalde yesterday”—a cherished Republican misdirection that casts a policy matter in intractable and Biblical terms. Then, he pivoted to a more modern canard, one that speciously implies a policy agenda: mental illness.
“I asked the sheriff and others an open-ended question … ‘What is the problem here?’ And they were straightforward and emphatic, they said, ‘We have a problem with mental health illness,’” Abbott said—despite previously noting the shooter had “no known mental health history.”
Of course, no one can dispute that mental health matters, or that more “resources” would be good. But, here, Abbott is simply changing the topic.
The Uvalde shooter did not kill those children with his purported mental health struggles. He did not shoot them with estrangement; he did not murder them with malaise; he did not ravage their little bodies with the inchoate rage of his misguided youth. He killed them with a goddamn assault rifle, and high-capacity magazines, designed for the precise purpose of human annihilation.
In perhaps his most deranged comment, Abbott said the massacre “could have been worse”—had law enforcement not so bravely and effectively intervened.
To the contrary, as more details emerge, we are finding that law enforcement may have botched the whole response. Why did it take an hour to take the shooter down? Why did state police report that an armed school resource officer confronted the shooter before he entered, only to later say this never occurred? Why are videos circulating of enraged parents outside, shouting at police to “go in there?” Why was one mother reportedly handcuffed, before escaping, hopping a fence, and running into the school to save her children herself? These questions are being investigated by the Texas Rangers and Congressman Joaquin Castro has requested an FBI inquiry.
Abbott also attempted to promote his policy record on the matter: “We consider what we did in 2019 to be one of the most profound legislative sessions not just in Texas but in any state in addressing school shootings,” he said.
Back in 2019, Texas’ biennial Legislature was under heat to do something after the Sutherland Springs church shooting of 2017, 26 dead, and the Santa Fe high school shooting of 2018, 10 dead. Even Abbott had changed his tune, pivoting away from full-blown God-tinged fatalism: “We need to do more than just pray for the victims and their families,” he said after Santa Fe. He convened a roundtable and task force, but when it came time in 2019 to pass any meaningful gun restrictions—such as universal background checks or a “red flag” law allowing courts to seize guns from dangerous individuals—Abbott caved easily to the gun lobby and his right flank.
In reality, Abbott in 2019 signed laws making it easier to carry guns in public places. As for shootings like Santa Fe, he signed school “hardening” legislation funding active-shooter response training and physical security infrastructure along with a program allowing more teachers to possess guns at school. Hardly any teachers have taken advantage of the opportunity, perhaps not wanting to be police officers. The money has been spent, the schools “hardened,” including in the Uvalde Consolidated Independent School District. Yet here we are, reeling from our worst school shooting ever.
On Wednesday, Abbott’s opponent in the November election, Democrat Beto O’Rourke, interrupted the press conference. “The time to stop the next shooting is right now and you are doing nothing. … This is on you,” he said while being escorted out of the building.
Outside, O’Rourke continued. “It is insane that we allow an 18-year-old to go in and buy an AR-15; what the hell did we think he was going to do with that?” he said. “I’ve got three kids … and I face their judgment and my conscience and ultimately my maker for what I do when I have the chance to change this.”
This was O’Rourke at his best, impassioned and spontaneous, drawing on the deep well of hurt in his own hometown of El Paso. A few months after the 2019 legislative session closed, a racist North Texan, motivated by hatred of immigrants, killed 23 at a Walmart in that city. Abbott fleetingly acknowledged that his own anti-immigrant rhetoric should change in light of the massacre, a tentative pledge he would later renege on relentlessly. As for firearm policy, by the time the 2021 legislation session came around, it was as if nothing had happened: The only high-profile gun bill to pass was so-called constitutional carry, the pinnacle of legislative recklessness, a law that allows residents to carry handguns without the basic safeguard of a permit.
In the race for governor, Abbott has gleefully and relentlessly bashed O’Rourke for saying in 2019 that he supported the confiscation of assault rifles. Studies show that mass shootings carried out with these guns are far deadlier than when other weapons are used. A federal assault weapons ban, in place from 1994 to 2004, appeared to tamp down mass shootings in America. It’s unclear whether Congress will take any meaningful action in response to Uvalde.
On Friday, Abbott was scheduled to speak at the National Rifle Association’s convention in Houston. Under intense pressure, he changed gears, deciding to stay in Uvalde rather than attend. But he didn’t condemn the convention or call for its cancellation. No, instead he announced he’d send pre-recorded video remarks for the gathering, a congregation of those politically committed to the prospect of more Uvaldes, to enjoy.
It’s classic Abbott. With nothing meaningful left to say, and no policy agenda to address the crises Texans face, he puts his finger to the wind and shifts slightly when it blows too hard, backtracking when it dies down. After all, it wasn’t moral courage or bettering ordinary Texans’ lives that got him this far, so why change now?