Saturday, November 26, 2022

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s school shooting response under scrutiny

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One day after an elementary school shooter killed 21 people in a small Texas town this week, Gov. Greg Abbott appeared before a grieving nation to explain how it happened, delivering an authoritative account of law enforcement heroes facing down evil and preventing the additional loss of life with quick action.

But much of that story wasn’t true.

Abbott was back in Uvalde, Tex., on Friday to acknowledge that key parts of what he had told the country had been disproved by the ongoing criminal investigation, and to pin the errors on law enforcement officials who had briefed him Wednesday.

“I was on this very stage two days ago and I was telling the public information that had been told to me,” the Republican said, his voice rising at times in anger. “As everybody has learned, the information that I was given turned out in part to be inaccurate. And I’m absolutely livid about that.”

The dramatic appearance came as anguish grew among grieving families over law enforcement’s response. It also came as Abbott — the most visible messenger in the days following the massacre — faces increasing criticism that he moved too quickly to amplify a false law enforcement narrative that aligns with his own political beliefs.

Federal authorities were “flabbergasted at the amateurish communications coming from Texas,” said a federal law enforcement official who, along with others, spoke on the condition of anonymity to address sensitive matters related to the shooting.

Democrats in the state have begun to call for the FBI to take a greater role in the review of events, while raising questions about Abbott’s decision to relay unverified information. Abbott is running ahead in polls for his reelection this year, and is increasingly viewed as a possible contender for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination.

“If I were the governor, when you have something this terrible affecting so many lives, I would want to make sure my information is rock solid,” said state Rep. Richard Raymond, the Democratic chairman of the committee overseeing the Texas Military Department, which works closely with the Department of Public Safety. “You can’t fumble this one.”

Abbott has had ample experience in such situations. Since his election as governor in 2014, the governor has overseen the state’s response to mass shootings that, together, have killed more than 90 people, including in attacks on a church in Sutherland Springs, a high school in Santa Fe, a Walmart in El Paso and shooting sprees on the streets of Odessa, Midland and Dallas.

Abbott has supported increased training and funding for school security in response, but resisted efforts to impose greater restrictions on gun ownership and use. Instead, he has pushed to loosen gun regulations, signing one 2015 law that allows concealed handguns on college campuses and a 2021 law that allows Texans to carry a concealed handgun without a license or training.

He signed other laws last year that allow gun owners to store firearms in hotel rooms, possess silencers and carry weapons outside of a shoulder or belt holster. He also prohibited the government from reducing gun sales during disasters and emergency.

Since the Tuesday shooting, he has shown no indication that he is rethinking any of those stances.

“Let’s be clear about one thing,” he said Friday. “None of the laws that I signed this past session had any intersection with this crime at all.”

Abbott was in Abilene on Tuesday afternoon, providing updates on wildfires scorching an eastern swath of his state, when he was first asked about reports of a school shooting four hours due south in Uvalde.

Lawmakers flanking him at a news conference had seen only brief snippets on their phones — chaos at an elementary school, more than a dozen children murdered. But the governor spoke confidently about what had just occurred, identifying the shooter and pronouncing him dead.

Abbott looked burdened after his remarks in Abilene, recalled state Sen. Charles Perry, a fellow Republican who joined him at his news conference. When the news conference ended, Perry asked him, “You holding up all right?”

“Hard day,” was his response, the state lawmaker recalled.

But the governor’s day was far from over. Before returning to Austin, he stopped at a fundraiser in Walker County, north of Houston — a move that former aides and Republican operatives said baffled them. One said he feared a fundraiser was the reason the governor did not go directly to Uvalde on Tuesday night, but was “shocked” to learn that he was right.

The fundraiser’s organizer, Jeff Bradley, confirmed in a text message that he had hosted the governor, who was there a “very short time due to the crisis in Uvalde,” and said he did not know how much the event had raised from attendees.

A spokesman for Abbott’s campaign said further political activity had been postponed, and the governor, responding to a question about the fundraiser, told reporters he “stopped and let people know that I could not stay, that I needed to go and I wanted them to know what happened and get back to Austin so I could continue to my collaboration with Texas law enforcement.”

Abbott also spoke Tuesday evening to President Biden, who offered “any and all assistance,” according to the White House.

On Wednesday, he traveled to Uvalde, where he appeared with law enforcement and other senior state officials, as well as federal and state lawmakers, to deliver details about how the shooting had unfolded. The news conference drew headlines mainly because it was interrupted by Beto O’Rourke, the Democrat and former Texas congressman who is running against Abbott for governor.

Abbott’s mission was not to debate, he made clear, but to clear up misconceptions about the shooting. “Let me tell you some of the best information we have at this time,” he said, stressing that the investigation was still underway.

He put particular emphasis on the heroism of the police.

“As horrible as what happened, it could have been worse,” Abbott said. “The reason it was not worse is because law enforcement officials did what they do. They showed amazing courage by running toward gunfire for the singular purpose of trying to save lives.”

Crucially, he said school officers “approached the gunman and engaged with the gunman.” That account echoed statements delivered by state authorities, some of whom said officers exchanged fire with the gunman.

But on Thursday, state officials made clear that officers had not engaged the gunman outside the school, and that a school district police officer was not on campus at the time. Abbott kept a low profile, huddling with aides in Austin. On Twitter, he shared images of a briefing with state agencies and vowed to “make available every state resource to help victims’ families, teachers, and the Uvalde community as they work to heal.”

And on Friday, Steven McCraw, director of the Department of Public Safety, further walked back initial accounts by acknowledging that a local incident commander had made the “wrong decision” by holding officers back from entering the classroom with the gunman, believing he had shifted from an “active shooter” to a “barricaded subject.”

For nearly 50 minutes, children inside called 911 to beg for help from the active shooter, as officers waited outside a pair of classrooms, McCraw acknowledged for the first time Friday.

A spokesman for Abbott did not respond to a request for comment about where he was receiving his information and how he was verifying it.

Abbott scrapped a planned appearance Friday at a meeting of the National Rifle Association in Houston in favor of prerecorded remarks in which he dismissed the notion that more gun regulations would have prevented the atrocity.

“There are thousands of laws on the books across the country that limit the owning or using of firearms, laws that have not stopped madmen from carrying out evil acts on innocent people in peaceful communities,” he told the gun rights group.

Later in Uvalde, he declined to immediately call a special legislative session to develop solutions that might quell gun violence, while saying he did want an extensive review of state law, particularly around school safety and health care.

Let me make one thing clear. The status quo is unacceptable,” he said. “This crime is unacceptable.”

Rep. Joaquin Castro (D-Tex.) said inconsistent statements from state leaders and law enforcement have “shaken Texans’ confidence in state government and in the governor.”

The congressman also accused Abbott of making the state less safe as mass shootings piled up. “He has made the state more dangerous by making it easier for dangerous people to get a gun,” Castro said.

On Friday, calls for a legislative response became bipartisan, with Republican State Sen. Kel Seliger urging Abbott to “call us into special sessions until we do SOMETHING.”

Former aides said the window for compromise in Austin has narrowed, especially in advance of the November election. And they said calling lawmakers back to Austin, only for talks to prove futile, could be damaging to Abbott.

Wayne Hamilton, who managed Abbott’s 2014 campaign, said he expects the governor, who has used a wheelchair since an accident in the 1980s, to take his time before reacting to calls for new legislation.

“As someone who has experienced personal tragedy, he is very in tune and focused on being with the hurting people, and that is what you are going to see him do for the near future,” Hamilton said. “You are not going to get him to talk about the policy stuff and the political stuff.”

After the Santa Fe shooting in 2018, he asked the legislature to explore a new red-flag law that would “identify those intent on violence from firearms” and allow the state to remove guns from their possession. But the proposal faced backlash, including from the state Republican Party, which came out against the idea in its platform that year.

The proposal never became law.





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