When Democrat Beto O’Rourke confronted Texas Republican Gov. Greg Abbott during a press conference Wednesday in the wake of a mass school shooting that left 19 children and two adults dead, he was shouted down for making the tragedy political.
“There are family members who are crying as we speak, there are family members whose hearts are broken, there is no words that anybody shouting can come up here and do anything to heal those broken hearts,” said Abbott. “We all, every Texan, every American has the responsibility. We need to focus not on ourselves and our agendas.”
This is, of course, the common response when these events happen. Politicians – usually Republicans – insist that it’s not the time to discuss gun-related public policies after a mass shooting. And that anyone who does so is somehow dishonoring the memories of those who have been lost.
It’s time – actually past time – to put that way of thinking behind us.
This is not to defend or criticize what O’Rourke did. It is impossible to separate out the fact that he is running against Abbott this year from his decision to confront the governor at a moment when he knew the eyes of Texas and the nation would be on him.
If you like O’Rourke and/or his views on gun control, you will see what he did as an act of political courage. If you don’t, it will look like a poorly timed political stunt.
And Abbott, of course, had put himself at the center of the response to the shootings at the press conference – rather than leaving it up to local law enforcement.
My point here, though, is broader than all of that: Don’t let politicians tell you that there’s no place for politics in moments like these. In fact, this is exactly the right moment to talk about politics.
Politics is about momentum. That’s because politicians tend to be a reactive species. They are always wary of going too far out on a limb only to find themselves out of step with the people whose votes they need. The place a politician likes to be is comfortably in the middle of what his or her constituents think.
External events are what change public opinion. Or, in the case of guns and mass shootings, remind people of what they believe and why they believe it. (In a 2021 Pew Research Center poll, more than 8 in 10 Americans supported making private gun sales and sales at gun shows subject to background checks. Two-thirds backed a national gun registration database.)
If we are ever going to see politicians line up with public opinion on guns, it’s in the immediate aftermath of just a shooting like the one that occurred in Texas on Tuesday. Public opinion shapes public policy. And public policy shapes how and what we do as citizens of a city, state and country.
O’Rourke didn’t make the aftermath Texas shooting political any more than Abbott’s policies (or lack thereof) on guns did. Guns and how we choose to regulate them in the country are fundamentally a political issue. Today and every day.