At a press conference Wednesday in the aftermath of the school shooting in Uvalde, Texas, Gov. Greg Abbott almost said something profound. Almost.
Asked by reporters about gun laws in Texas, Abbott responded by talking about the need for more “mental health-resources” — a catch-all term often bandied about by Republican politicians in the wake of mass shootings like the one in Uvalde, in which 19 elementary school kids and two teachers were killed by a deeply disturbed 18-year-old.
Abbott, though, began going in a different direction with his response. He noted that 18-year-olds have been able to buy rifles in Texas for more than 60 years, and then asked: “Why is it that the majority of those 60 years we did not have school shootings and we do now?”
But then he stopped short, saying, “The reality is I do not know the answer to that question.”
Maybe Abbott really doesn’t know. Maybe it’s too much to expect an unimaginative politician like him to delve into the myriad forces of social and cultural decay that produce 18-year-old mass murderers. Maybe he was just trying to deflect questions from a hostile press corps.
After all, in the wake of school shootings, GOP politicians tend to snap into a defensive crouch as predictably as Democrats tend to regurgitate irrelevant talking points about gun control, as President Biden did earlier this week. So maybe that’s all this was.
But whether he meant to or not, Abbott’s comments approached the heart of the matter. Indeed, he could have made an even more expansive claim. Texas has been awash in firearms of all kinds for two centuries, ever since the first American empresarios began arriving in Texas at the invitation of the newly formed Mexican Republic. For the past 60 years or so, there have been no major technological advances in firearm lethality. So why is it that only now, over the past two decades, do we see the kind of mass shootings we saw this week in Texas?
Abbott can pretend not to know, but I suspect that he, along with most everyone else in America, knows perfectly well the answer to that question. It has nothing to do with gun technology or gun control laws and everything to do with our corrupt culture, and especially with the collapse of the family.
Indeed, the Uvalde shooter was a walking advertisement for the moral bankruptcy of modern America and the hollowing out of the American home. Salvador Rolando Ramos was apparently raised without a father and until recently lived with his single mother, who reportedly struggled with drug addiction. Neighbors recall blowups between her and Ramos, and police occasionally being called to the house. For the past few months, Ramos had been living with his grandmother, who called the cops after he shot her in the face and left her for dead.
Ramos has been described by former classmates in news reports as a loner who was bullied over a speech impediment, got into fights at school, and took solace in video games and chatting with strangers online. It was to one of these online strangers that he apparently confessed or hinted at what he was planning to do just before the attack on the elementary school.
A broken home, no father or father figure in his life, no church or community of any kind, no real friends except those he met through social media. Here we have, in brief sketch, not just a profile of a school shooter, but an indictment of our entire culture. It was the same in Parkland, and Sandy Hook, and many other places. Something is very wrong out there, and it is manifesting itself in the proliferation of mass shootings by alienated young men.
Politicians and pundits don’t want to talk about these things partly because there’s no law we can pass to fix it. It’s not a problem with an obvious solution. But they need to start talking all the same. We need to confront, collectively, the social maladies that create young men who murder indiscriminately, and chief among these maladies is the collapse of family and community.
Two years ago in the wake of the murder of George Floyd, amid nationwide protests and riots led by Black Lives Matter, corporate media were eager to talk about so-called “systemic racism,” police brutality, and a host of other perceived social ills. But almost no one, except a few conservatives like Glenn Loury, was willing to talk about the number one social ill afflicting black communities in America: the absence of fathers and the prevalence of single-parent households.
To his credit, Loury argued that until we’re willing to talk about that, we’re not really serious about helping black Americans or reviving black communities, we’re just using them for political advantage. He was right.
So too with school shooters like Ramos. Uvalde is a small town. People know each other there, as press reports have revealed in stark and heartbreaking ways in recent days. The brutal killing of so many schoolchildren has touched nearly the whole town in some way.
But for as tight-knit as Uvalde now seems, Ramos himself was not very well known, not tied to others in the community by strong bonds. He was on his own, and left to his own devices he became consumed by evil intent.
This is not to single out Uvalde, but to call to mind communities like it across the country, where other young men like Ramos are struggling in obscurity. It’s a difficult thing to confront, this failure in our neighborhoods and towns and communities, because it’s above all a failure of charity, of neighborly love, and we are all guilty of it.
Our leaders, though, bear special responsibility for making these cultural problems worse. Ramos had just turned 16 years old when the Covid lockdowns and school closures began. Those policies, enacted by leaders who don’t really care about the weak and powerless, made all the problems teenagers like Ramos face unfathomably worse.
As Anna Zeigler argued in these pages recently, “The total disregard for the welfare of children, children who were isolated, ignored, and needlessly masked for two years, is not unrelated to the matter of school shootings.” We could secure our schools the way we secure “places that are frequented by adults deemed to be important people,” she writes, but we don’t. “We do exactly what was done for the last two years: ignore the needs of children and cater to caterwauling unions.”
It’s quite possible that the response to the Uvalde massacre will be meaningless gun legislation that assuages the consciences of our political leaders but does nothing to address the underlying causes of such violence, just as the Covid school closures assuaged their consciences while making life worse for everyone else. You’ll be able to tell the politicians who understand the real problem and take it seriously; they’ll be talking about the need for fathers, intact families, and neighborly love.
Abbott says he doesn’t know why we have school shootings today when we did not have them 60 years ago. But he knows. We all know.