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“We know that words alone are inadequate. Words must be met with action.” — Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, after a gunman in West Texas shot 32 people, killing seven of them.
The governor, like other elected officials, is always courteously prompt with words of comfort after natural disasters like hurricanes and floods and tornados, and unnatural disasters, like the shootings in Odessa, El Paso, Sutherland Springs, Santa Fe and Dallas. He answered Santa Fe and Sutherland Springs — shootings in a high school and in a church — with roundtable conversations that produced some ideas for legislation earlier this year. That round of lawmaking did not include stricter laws for gun sales, possession or use.
And he had already started another sequence of roundtables after the shooting in El Paso when the latest shooting took place. Now the House and Senate have formed a joint committee on “mass violence prevention and community safety” to make recommendations to the Legislature, much as the governor’s roundtables have done.
It’s hard to keep up, especially in cases — Odessa appears to be an example — where state lawmakers whistled past a well-known loophole in the law requiring background checks. The Odessa shooter couldn’t buy the gun he used from a dealer because of a failed background check. He could buy one, and did, from a private party — a situation the law doesn’t cover and one that has been debated for years, in Texas and elsewhere.
We have words, all over again, with action, maybe, to follow. Optimists would be well served to ignore recent history.
But the words deserve more attention. Elected officials should either go with “words matter” or shut up — because if words don’t matter, why speak?
Skip the usual griping about thoughts and prayers. It’s good to think and pray about these things, along with anything else that keeps these public safety issues front and center.
Consider the other words — the ones meant for political consumption instead of comfort. The governor, for instance, sent a provocative fundraising letter to supporters just over a month ago, conjuring the sorts of ideas about immigration and immigrants you’d expect from any nativist. And he landed that letter in El Paso, content enough with the content to stick it in the mailboxes of voters who are either of Latino descent or who are Anglos living in a city where Hispanics make up 80% of the population.
Just after Abbott's fundraising plea landed, a white supremacist from Allen drove 650 miles to the Walmart where he shot 46 people, killing 22. That was hardly the governor’s fault, but it made Abbott’s letter awkward, to say the least. It pushed him all the way from "Send it!" before the shooting, to a passive apology — "mistakes were made" — after the shooting. Abbott, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and others tweaked their words, with some encouragement from their colleagues in El Paso, to point out the shooter’s white nationalist motivations.
But Abbott’s letter was out of line before the shooting, just as surely as it is now. It's an indication — not the first, not the last — that the insulting, demeaning, trolling cultures of politics and social media are now marbled into the everyday language of civics.
The high officials who are supposed to represent the people who voted for them, and also the people who didn't, can't help talking to their side of the room about what they see as the problems on the other side of the room.
If a governor is talking to potential supporters that way in public, imagine the private conversations. Maybe his roundtables should include some debate about how leaders should act, about toning down the racist and nativist talk, about trying to include everybody.
The governor’s fundraising letter was a big mistake. Pressed by El Paso lawmakers, he said he “emphasized the importance of making sure that rhetoric will not be used in any dangerous way.” He was right to apologize. He did an awful thing, using his high office to raise the political temperature of an already charged debate about race and immigration. And it wasn’t because of the shooting that it was a mistake, either. His words were awful before anyone ever lifted a gun, and it's a damn shame that it took a mass murder to make those words news. This was news all along. And it'll be news the next time.