Opinion: Have the gun debate. Now.
By Richard D. Pineda
The Uvalde tragedy 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 legislators, it seems that perfection has become the enemy of all good policy.
Legislators in Austin and Washington, DC, failed in their most basic mission to debate the merits of politics and legislate from those findings.
Rhetorically, Gov. Greg Abbott’s response to Uvalde to focus on mental health is a logical fallacy that fails to address the issue and appears to be an empty platitude with no applicable policy. Despite a repeated chorus of the need for mental health “solutions,” little has been done statewide or nationwide to enact policies aimed at minimizing gun violence, especially as it relates to youth.
Worse, it tells Texans that a side issue should take center stage; it’s like conversations about strengthening schools, adding more armed guards, or arming teachers.
Incidentally, these are not mutually exclusive political debates; gun control AND mental health can and should be discussed simultaneously. That said, the governor and, to a large extent, the Republican Party, have defined the choice to focus on solutions as one or the other, but never both. Whether it is the impact of the influence of lobbyists or the fear of losing legislative power or political capital does not matter; all this leads to inaction.
And inaction means the risk of violence, death and community trauma will continue with no end in sight.
As a communications expert and a lifelong supporter of debate, I believe the first step toward substantive change on guns is to have big, complex legislative debates in Austin and Washington. These policy debates should be based on data and evidence and can focus on a number of important questions: should assault rifles be banned, should the age of gun ownership change, should teachers be armed, should ammunition sales be limited, should gun manufacturers’ immunity from liability be repealed – any number of basic gun-focused questions can and should be debated.
And these should be vigorous and contentious debates. Debates should feature gun lobbyists, law enforcement officials, gun control advocates, victims of gun violence and their families; a solid list of interested parties on both sides of the issue.
These political debates should be complicated, they could be heated and they could even be ugly as we look behind the curtain and see how defenders defend their positions. The “sausage making” of politics 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 hide behind politics as usual, nor pretend that the rhetoric on either side is too political. It’s all political. And honestly, politics and politics are the only way to prevent another Uvalde or Sutherland Springs or El Paso.
If Governor Abbott and those who share his political positions could sustain several special sessions on esoteric “crises,” then surely they could sustain a thorough and transparent debate on gun politics.
After the El Paso shooting, State Representative Joe Moody suggested that the behind-the-scenes conversations would potentially move the needle on politics and yet, at the end of the regular and special sessions, these promises have been lost.
Choosing not to engage in debate and voluntarily testing their ideas in the public forum not only sells their responsibilities as elected officials short, it also undermines the faith of those they represent.
Richard D. Pineda is chair of the communication department at the University of Texas at El Paso and director of the Sam Donaldson Center for Communication Studies.