By Richard D. Pineda
The tragedy in Uvalde should remind all Texans that a lack of resolve to act on gun policy will continue to haunt the state. There is no perfect policy to prevent these tragedies, but for contemporary lawmakers it seems like perfect has become the enemy of advancing any good policy.
Lawmakers in Austin and Washington, D.C., have failed at their most basic assignment, to debate the merits of policy and to legislate from those results.
Rhetorically, Gov. Greg Abbott’s response to Uvalde, to focus on mental health, is a logical fallacy that does not address the issue and seems to be an empty platitude without actionable policy. Despite a repeated chorus of the need for mental health “solutions,” little has been done state or nationwide to enact policies directed at minimizing gun violence, especially regarding young people.
Worse, it communicates to Texans that a secondary issue should take centerstage; this is like conversations about hardening schools, adding more armed guards, or arming teachers.
Incidentally, these are not mutually exclusive policy debates; gun control AND mental health can and should be debated concurrently. That said, the governor and to a large extent, the Republican Party, have framed the choice to zero in on solutions as either/or, but never both. Whether this is the impact of lobbyist influence or a fear of losing legislative power or political capital does not matter; it all results in inaction.
And inaction means the chance of violence, death, and community trauma will continue with no end in sight.
As a communication scholar and as a lifelong advocate of debate, I believe the first step to substantive change on guns is to have big, complex, legislative debates in Austin and Washington. These policy debates should be data and testimony driven and can focus on any number of important questions: should assault rifles be banned, should age of ownership of firearms change, should teachers be armed, should ammunition sales be limited, should gun manufacturer liability immunity be repealed – any number of core, gun-focused issues can and should be debated.
And these should be vigorous, contentious debates. The debates should feature the gun lobbyists, law enforcement officials, gun control advocates, victims of gun violence and their families; a robust list of interested parties on both sides of the issue.
These policy debates should be complicated, they might be heated, and they might even be ugly as we look behind the curtain and see how advocates defend their positions. The “sausage making” of policy is often incredibly unpleasant and yet, when we are honest as a society, it is from the worst circumstances that our most powerful and positive laws emerge.
But we cannot duck behind politics as usual, nor can we claim that discourse on either side is too political. All of this is political. And truthfully, politics and policy are the only way to prevent another Uvalde or Sutherland Springs or El Paso.
If Gov. Abbott and those that share his policy positions could support multiple, special sessions on esoteric “crises,” then surely, they can stomach a full-throated, transparent debate on gun policy.
After the El Paso shooting, state Rep. Joe Moody suggested that backroom conversations were potentially going to move the needle on policy and yet by the end of the regular session and the special sessions, those promises were lost.
Choosing not to engage the debate and willingly test their ideas in the public forum, not only short sells their responsibilities as elected officials, but it also undermines the faith of those they represent.
Richard D. Pineda is chair of the Department of Communication at the University of Texas at El Paso and director of the Sam Donaldson Center for Communication Studies.