Discover more from Letters from an American
May 26, 2022
One of the key things that drove the rise of the current Republican Party was the celebration of a certain model of an ideal man, patterned on the image of the American cowboy. Republicans claimed to be defending individual men who could protect their families if only the federal government would stop interfering with them. Beginning in the 1950s, those opposed to government regulation and civil rights decisions pushed the imagery of the cowboy, who ran cattle on the Great Plains from 1866 to about 1886 and who, in legend, was a white man who worked hard, fought hard against Indigenous Americans, and wanted only for the government to leave him alone.
That image was not true to the real cowboys, at least a third of whom were Black or men of color, or to the reality of government intervention in the Great Plains, which was more extensive there than in any other region of the country. It was a reaction to federal laws after the Civil War defending Black rights in the post–Civil War South, laws white racists said were federal overreach that could only lead to what they insisted was “socialism.”
In the 1950s, the idea of an individual hardworking man taking care of his family and beholden to no one was an attractive image to those who disliked government protection of civil rights, and politicians who wanted to dissolve business regulation pulled them into the Republican Party by playing to the mythology of movie heroes like John Wayne. Part of that mythology, of course, was the idea that men with guns could defend their families, religion, and freedom against a government trying to crush them. By the 1980s, the National Rifle Association had abandoned its traditional stance promoting gun safety and was defending “gun rights” and the Republican Party; in the 1990s, talk radio hosts like Rush Limbaugh fed the militia movement with inflammatory warnings that the government was coming for a man’s guns, destroying his ability to protect his family.
That cowboy image has stoked an obsession with guns and with military hardware and war training in police departments. It feeds a conviction that true men dominate situations, both at home and abroad, with violence. That dominance, in turn, is supposed to protect society’s vulnerable women and children.
In 2008, in the District of Columbia v. Heller decision, the Supreme Court said that individuals have a right to own firearms outside of membership in a militia or for traditional purposes such as hunting or self-defense, and dramatically limited federal regulation of them. Justice Antonin Scalia, who wrote the majority decision, was a leading “originalist” on the court, eager to erase the decisions of the post-WWII courts that upheld business regulation and civil rights.
In 2004, a ten-year federal ban on assault weapons expired, and since then. mass shootings have tripled. Zusha Elinson, who is writing a history of the bestselling AR-15 military style weapon used in many mass shootings, notes that there were about 400,000 AR-15 style rifles in America before the assault weapons ban went into effect in 1994. Today, there are 20 million.
For years now, Republicans have stood firmly against measures to guard Americans against gun violence, even as a majority of Americans support commonsense measures like background checks. Notably, after the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre in 2012, when a gunman murdered 20 six- and seven-year-old students and 6 staff members, Republicans in the Senate filibustered a bipartisan bill sponsored by Joe Manchin (D-WV) and Pat Toomey (R-PA) that would have expanded background checks, killing it despite the 55 votes in favor of it.
Since Sandy Hook, the nation has suffered more than 3500 mass shootings, and Republicans have excused them by claiming they didn’t actually happen, or by insisting we need more guns so there will be “a good guy with a gun” to take out a shooter, or that we need to “harden targets,” or that we need more police in the schools (which has simply led to more student arrests), or as Senator Ted Cruz said today, to limit the number of doors in schools, or, as a guest on Fox News Channel personality Sean Hannity’s show said, to put “mantraps” and trip wires in the schools.
The initial story of what happened on Tuesday in Uvalde fit the Republican myth. Police spokespeople told reporters that a school district police officer confronted the shooter outside the building before he barricaded himself in a classroom, killing 19 and wounding 22 others in his rampage.
But as more details are emerging today, they are undermining the myth itself.
Robb Elementary School, where the murders took place, had already been “hardened” with the town investing more than $650,000 in security enhancements, but the shooter apparently entered through an unlocked door. The Uvalde police department consumes 40% of the town’s budget and has its own Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) unit. And yet, the stories that are emerging from Uvalde suggest that the shooter fired shots outside the school for 12 minutes before entering it and that he was not, in fact, confronted outside. Police officers arrived at the same time he entered the school, but they did not go in until after he had been in the building for four minutes. Seven officers then entered, but the lone gunman apparently drove them out with gunfire, and they stayed outside, holding back frantic parents, until Border Patrol tactical officers arrived a full hour later.
Parents tried to get the police to go in but instead found themselves under attack for interfering with an investigation. One man was thrown to the ground and pepper sprayed. U.S. Marshals arrested and handcuffed Angeli Rose Gomez, whose children were in the school and who had had time to drive 40 miles to get to them, for interfering as she demanded they do something. Gomez got local officers she knew to talk the Marshals into releasing her. Then she jumped the school fence, ran in, grabbed her two kids, and ran out.
A Texas Department of Safety official told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer tonight that the law enforcement officers at the school were reluctant to engage the gunman because “they could’ve been shot, they could’ve been killed.”
There are still many, many questions about what happened in Uvalde, but it seems clear that the heroes protecting the children were not the guys with guns, but the moms and the dads and the two female teachers who died trying to protect their students: Eva Mireles and Irma Garcia. News reports today say that Garcia’s husband, Joseph, died this morning of a heart attack, leaving four children.
Last week, in the aftermath of the deadly attack on a supermarket in Buffalo, New York, Democrats in the House of Representatives quickly passed a a domestic terrorism bill. Senate majority leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) tried to get the Senate to take it up today. It would have sparked a debate on gun safety. Republicans blocked it. In the aftermath of Tuesday’s massacre, only five Republicans have said they are willing to consider background checks for gun purchases. That is not enough to break a filibuster.
Last night, Texas candidate for governor Beto O’Rourke confronted Texas governor Greg Abbott at a press conference. Last year, Abbott signed at least seven new laws to make it easier to obtain guns, and after the Uvalde murders, he said tougher gun laws are not “a real solution.” O’Rourke offered a different vision for defending our children than stocking up on guns. "The time to stop the next shooting is right now, and you are doing nothing," O'Rourke said, standing in front of a dais at which Abbott sat. "You said this is not predictable…. This is totally predictable…. This is on you, until you choose to do something different…. This will continue to happen. Somebody needs to stand up for the children of this state or they will continue to be killed, just like they were killed in Uvalde yesterday.”
Uvalde mayor Don McLaughlin shouted profanities at O'Rourke; Texas Republican lieutenant governorDan Patrick told the former congressman, "You're out of line and an embarrassment”; and Senator Ted Cruz told him, “Sit down.”
But this evening the New York Yankees and the Tampa Bay Rays announced they would use their social media channels not to cover tonight’s game but to share facts about gun violence. “The devastating events that have taken place in Uvalde, Buffalo and countless other communities across our nation are tragedies that are intolerable.”