May 25, 2022

We are broken.

Image by dietcheese from Pixabay
Image by dietcheese from Pixabay

The shooting in Texas is the worst of everything.

I’m Isaac Saul, and this is Tangle: an independent, ad-free, subscriber-supported politics newsletter that summarizes the best arguments from across the political spectrum on the news of the day — then “my take.”

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Every now and again, probably five or six times a year, I feel compelled to abandon the usual Tangle format and write something from the heart.

Today is one of those days.

I'm not sure I have many words left, but I am going to try.

Thursday was going to be the last day of class at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas.

I can still remember what that time of year felt like as a kid. The anxiety for the week to end so summer could start. The week where nobody did any real work, where the teachers were suddenly happy no matter what. A shrill excitement permeated every conversation, school projects were somehow unambiguously fun, the weather for recess was always perfect, and the air conditioners (if you were lucky) would be blasting inside when recess was over — the kids tumbling in, sweaty and dirty and covered in stories to share with friends. All the talk was about the pool, manhunt, the beach, camp, vacation, all the video games you were going to play and ice cream you were going to eat and fun you were going to have.

Instead of that summer bliss, on Tuesday, those kids were exposed to something else. Something much worse. Some horrifying thing at the intersection of everything we do wrong as a society here in the United States.

Some manifestation of our brokenness.

An 18-year-old walked into the school and — well, forget it.

You don't even need to hear the story. You know it. He was a young man. He had multiple guns. He was wearing body armor. He opened fire. Law enforcement came, or they were there but they didn't react quickly enough, or they couldn't stop him.*

What you should know, the thing that should probably stick with you, is that parents were sent to a civic center as the "reunification point" to find their kids. They sat outside in little groups as police and doctors and school officials tried to help them locate their children. Because of the nature of the crime and the weapons involved and the size of the victims, identification was not easy. Reporters witnessed "audible screams" and eruptions of sobs as DNA matches and descriptions of children were confirmed. It was "good news" if you found out your child was in the hospital still clinging to life.

There may be more, because this morbid identification process is still happening as I write, but at this very moment we know for sure that 19 children are dead.


Elementary school kids. Babies. Two adults, too, both teachers. We're less than 24 hours out from the shooting so the "motives" are still unclear. On the surface, it appears different than the Buffalo shooting, which was a crime of racial animosity. This was a Hispanic teenager, in a predominantly Hispanic town in Texas, killing mostly Hispanic elementary school students. Unlike the Buffalo shooter, he did not survive; he was killed by law enforcement, a Border Patrol agent who responded to the shooting and — thankfully — entered the school without waiting for backup. Somehow the horror could have been worse, if such a thing can even be comprehended.

You know what happened next, too.

Everyone expressed shock and grief and horror. People used words like "unthinkable" and "unimaginable" and "nightmare," though none of those words really fit. This isn't just thinkable or imaginable — it is predictable. It feels nearly guaranteed, like the sun rising and setting. There will be another one. Hopefully not today or tomorrow or next week, but I guarantee you, it will happen again.

Many on the right expressed heartache and grief. Some vaguely called for gun reform or for us to address our mental health crisis. Many gun reform proponents on the left responded in fury, frustrated to watch this cycle run again when the solution seems so obvious to them: Make it harder to get a gun.

Sen. Chris Murphy (D-CT), whose state was home to the Sandy Hook shooting in 2012, literally begged for a different reaction. One House representative accused Republicans of being "baby killers" and then the right responded in kind. It briefly became an argument about abortion and the media, and then the right's most prominent voices accused the left of "politicizing the tragedy" and then — in a moment, in a flash — it became just another example of partisan warfare.

Everyone get to your sides. Arm yourselves with stats and talking points and animosity for the opposition. The dead fade to the background, the partisan warriors move to the front lines, and the discourse gets swallowed whole by whatever this monster is that our modern day politics have become.

In this moment of madness, I saw two reactions to the news that struck me as wholly true and worth sharing with my readers. One was a new reaction and another was a classic, one worth reiterating until it really hits home.

The first was from conservative columnist Noam Blum, who said pointedly and concisely something I believe with all my heart: "Nothing is monocausal. There are just parts of our society that are unfathomably broken and they occasionally intersect in unspeakably awful and evil ways."

The other is from The Onion, the satirical website whose famous headline was rightly being shared again yesterday:

I like these two ideas because even though they are seemingly contradictory, I subscribe to them both. First, we should all begin with the understanding that fixing only one thing will not fix the problem of mass shootings and gun violence in America. Second, we should recognize that the regularity of this type of violence — especially mass shootings — is something that is unique to our country. This requires us to understand that we can fix it.

By now, many of you know the data, but it is important to revisit regardless.

Mass shootings in America account for less than one percent of all gun deaths in our country. Over half of all gun deaths in the U.S. are suicides, and most gun violence in the U.S. is committed with handguns.

But mass shootings — defined as an incident where four or more people are shot — are also shockingly common here. There have already been 213 mass shootings in the U.S. this year. There have already been 27 school shootings where at least one person was injured or killed. And things seem to be headed in the wrong direction. There were 417 mass shootings in 2019, 611 in 2020, and 693 in 2021 — nearly two a day. At our current pace, we'll have far more this year than we did in 2019, but fewer than we did in 2021. We typically expect more violence in the summer, though, so it’s likely the next few months are worse.

I'd like to reject, from the outset, the notion that these mass shootings are somehow less damaging or less important because they kill fewer than one percent of all the people who die in gun violence. This seems to be a talking point many people lean on when proposals are suggested about how to address mass shootings, but it disregards the ripple effects of these tragedies.

Mass shootings have an impact on the psyche of our society writ large that a lot of other gun violence does not. They are, in simple terms, very effective acts of terrorism. They terrorize. When you report on these shootings, something quickly becomes very obvious: They don't just irreparably damage the lives of the family and friends who lose someone in the shooting, they also traumatize witnesses, law enforcement officers who respond, the doctors and nurses who care for the injured and the community as a whole. And that trauma spreads like a wave outward.

Last night, I came home to my apartment blissfully unaware of what had happened. I was at a physical therapy appointment when the news broke, and absorbed in a podcast on the drive home, so I had not checked my phone for texts and news alerts. When I walked into my house my wife was in front of her computer, glossy-eyed and somber, a heartbroken look on her face that anyone can recognize in their partner. I braced myself and asked: "What’s wrong? What happened?"

"They were babies," she said. "They were just babies."

I had to ask a few follow-up questions to understand that one of the worst mass shootings in American history had just taken place in the two hours I wasn't checking my phone. We were 2,000 miles from the Texas town where this happened, but the trauma had already spread.

When I wrote about the Buffalo shooting last week, I was careful in how I constructed the "blame pyramid" of what had happened. First was the shooter himself, who made the decision to inflict this horror on a community. Second was the family, friends and law enforcement who failed to properly act on the warning signs (in that case, he told an entire classroom he planned to commit a murder-suicide). Third were the gun laws (and gun accessibility) that allowed the shooter to so easily act on all the failures that preceded his decision to go on a killing spree. Fourth were the racist online spaces and other mass shooters who allowed him to justify his attack. And finally there was the media, which turns shooters into celebrities and spreads their pathological ideologies far and wide.

This is part of our brokenness.

Somewhere in that pyramid, though I’m not sure where, should be another issue: Our gun culture.

I was 13 the first time I ever shot a gun. I was, coincidentally, in Texas. When they are handled responsibly, moments like this are burned into your memory like a first kiss or a first beer or the first time you drive a car by yourself. My cousin had taken out a .22 rifle and I sat quietly as I watched him load it. We were sitting atop a hill on his 10 acre tract of land staring down at a set of hanging spoons about 35 yards away.

Before he taught me to aim and shoot, he taught me to always keep the gun pointed at the ground, under all circumstances, whether I thought it was loaded or not, and no matter how many times I had checked. He taught me to hold it safely with my finger inches away from the trigger, and he made it as clear as humanly possible that if I ever went near it without him around, the repercussions would be on an order of magnitude worse than any momentary fun I might have without him.

There was a reverence in the moment. A solemn rite of passage that accompanied this chance to learn to shoot. It wasn't about letting me run wild or flexing my manhood; it was a test of my responsibility, of my maturity. How would I react? How would I comport myself? Was I old and mature enough to handle — literally handle — something that could take a life?

I do not know what our gun culture is now, but it isn't that. It isn't what I knew growing up: a world where you often didn't know if a gun owner was actually a gun owner because they had no interest in advertising it to you. It is unrecognizable to me now. Today we have politicians who take armed family photos in front of Christmas trees. Seven years ago, now-Texas Gov. Greg Abbott tweeted this:

This morning, self-described "disaffected liberal" Tim Pool tweeted "I'm going to buy more guns today."

I don't know Tim that well. And I don't know whether he is trying to be funny, or trolling somebody, or being intentionally provocative, or is really delusional enough to think that having more guns than he already does will somehow make him safer. But I do know this: The attitude represented in that tweet, even if it is meant to be a joke, is far too common.

It is a kind of "virtue signaling" but with guns — the same kind Gov. Abbott and Rep. Lauren Boebert and others seem to act on daily. I have guns and will buy more guns and thus I am free. I am free and armed and thus I am strong. You need to be free and strong too, so go buy more guns!

There is so much more bragging, flaunting and intentionally provocative behavior around gun ownership today than I remember. Something that, in the most toxic way possible, associates gun ownership with a false sense of strength and power and liberty. Something that, to me, is so obviously a facet of the kind of commonplace gun violence we witness day in and day out, that we should be better able to address it by now.

This is part of our brokenness.

Much as I have expressed a fear about the erosion of free speech culture in America, and the inevitability that losing this culture will lead to more potently restrictive laws on speech, I also fear our gun culture. I fear it because I know that culture drives attitudes which in turn drive our laws. If guns make us feel free and strong, then any restriction on the sale or distribution or ownership of those guns makes us feel less free and less strong. So the obvious answer is to resist all restrictions on guns. And the equally obvious result is what we have now.

Americans make up about 4.4% of the global population but we own 42% of the world's guns. From 1966 to 2012, 31% of the gunmen in mass shootings globally were Americans. When you adjust for population, and include only countries with more than 10 million citizens, only one country in the world had a higher rate of mass shootings during that time than us: Yemen. Yemen also had the second-highest rate of gun ownership after the United States.

As of 2018, we had more guns (398 million) than people (326 million) in the United States. In the last four years, gun ownership and manufacturing has continued to skyrocket. This summer, the Supreme Court appears poised to further loosen gun restrictions in New York and across the country, making it harder for legislators to limit when and where someone can carry a concealed handgun in public. In short: Our society in the U.S. is already flooded with guns, and you can expect sales, ownership and public prevalence to increase in the coming years.

In Texas specifically, gun laws have recently become much less restrictive. In September, the Unlicensed Carry Law went into place, so anyone 21 or older could carry a handgun without a permit or training in most places (some private businesses, schools and colleges still require permits).

That does not mean these laws allowed this shooting to happen. Details are still emerging, but it is quite clear that laws were broken left and right. You cannot carry a gun onto school grounds in Texas or into a school zone (usually about 1,000 feet around a school). You cannot carry a handgun in Texas when you are 18, as the alleged shooter was. You can legally (and easily) own a long gun, which he reportedly had, and it is not hard to buy body armor and other tactical gear, which he also reportedly donned.

More fundamental than any specific law or regulation, though, is the basic concept of accessibility. The fact that nearly 400 million guns exist in the U.S., and our corresponding rates of gun violence and mass shootings, cannot simply be treated as if they are unrelated.

To drive this point home, I'd like to tell you a secret about your money.

One of the most important things in sales is what we call "friction." A huge part of my job at Tangle is trying to think of ways to reduce friction so you will give me your money and become a subscriber. For instance, I could tell you to go subscribe to Tangle by clicking here, and you'll be taken to a "membership page" where you read about our plans, pick which one you want, enter your email, click subscribe, then go to a new page where you enter your name, credit card, address and then check out. That’s a lot of friction. So, instead, sometimes I tell people to click here to subscribe. When you click that link, you're already on a checkout page. Your credit card may autofill depending on your computer settings. Your plan is chosen for you. I've eliminated some friction.

The richest, wealthiest companies in the world focus on eliminating friction to get your money. It's why Apple has "Apple Pay" and face or fingerprint recognition to use your credit card. It's why Amazon has a "buy now" button to automatically purchase a product.

In our country, we have very little friction in the process of buying guns. Waiting periods are rare, even though we know they reduce handgun deaths. Red flag laws exist but are mostly inadequate or ineffectively enforced (see Buffalo, and Uvalde). You do not need to pass a test like you do to legally drive a car. In most states, under most circumstances, buying a gun requires identification, cash and a background check (though our background check system, and expanding it, has had very mixed results). Simply put: We regulate the right to own firearms a lot less than we regulate other weighty responsibilities in our society.

This is part of our brokenness.

In response to this particular shooting, a few solutions besides creating more friction have been brought forward.

The one that got a lot of attention came from Ken Paxton, Texas's attorney general and a man who has a lot of power to enact reforms to address gun violence. He suggested arming school teachers.

“We can’t stop bad people from doing bad things," he said. "We can potentially arm and prepare and train teachers and other administrators to respond quickly. That, in my opinion, is the best answer.”

There is a lot about this answer that frustrates me. The first is that "We can't stop bad people from doing bad things" is an argument you could make for not having any laws at all. Why have laws to regulate murder or robbery or rape if there's simply nothing we can do to stop bad people from doing bad things? Coming from an attorney general, it is a perplexing stance to take.

Another is that it's a solution we've tried, or in many places are trying. And there's no indication it’s working. Schools have been increasingly armed and fortified in the last decade and yet school shootings are happening more frequently. There was an armed security guard at the Buffalo grocery store. There were armed officers at Parkland. In fact, there were armed school resource officers at Uvalde elementary school.

We still don't know how the shooter got into the school, but we do know he drove a pickup truck into the barrier of the south entrance of the school, got out of his car, and two police officers and an armed school resource officer fired at him, but could not stop him from entering the building.

Third and finally, it's frustrating because Paxton is part of a group of conservatives that have warned about the “threat” of public school teachers across the country. He has, for example, accused school districts of "indoctrinating" students with gender ideology and insisted teachers have less discretion about what they can teach and discuss in the classroom. Yet he is also suggesting those same teachers — the ones not worthy of our trust — should be armed in classrooms? It is hard to square that circle.

Another common refrain has been to address mental health issues. There is no doubt this solution has merit. Our country is experiencing an epidemic of loneliness, anxiety and stress. Addressing that, like creating more friction to purchase guns, is something I think would help reduce gun violence and mass shootings. After the Buffalo shooting, we linked a great piece from The Washington Post that unpacks this aspect of mass shootings.

Yet, what's frustrating about this solution is that it is often suggested in place of gun control, rather than in concert with it. Worse, many conservatives who are keen to point to mental health as the root cause of this violence and these mass shootings don't appear to be doing much about it. Democrats in Congress regularly push for measures like expanding Medicare or funding for mental health services but have not found support on the right. We've been having this conversation, in earnest, for a decade. If Republicans do believe there is a mental health crisis, what is their solution? Where is the legislation or systematic societal adjustment to address it?

If there is one promising development, it is the bipartisan negotiations on mental health legislation that have started happening recently. They were first reported in February, and several Republican and Democratic senators were involved in those talks. In May, NPR reported that Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-LA) and Sen. Chris Murphy (D-CT) are apparently still making progress on the bill. The details are murky, but this is an opportunity to put some momentum behind the legislation, rather than just issue sympathetic statements and empty tweets.

On the left, there are plenty of obviously flawed or empty solutions, too. "Banning all assault weapons" is a nice talking point, but it’s pretty hard to pin down. For starters, "assault weapons" is basically a made-up activist term that is impossible to clearly define, and many legislators who use the term don't seem to be able to define it themselves. We had a 10-year assault weapons ban that started in 1994 whose impact on violent crime was basically non-existent, though some researchers contend it reduced the number of fatalities associated with mass shootings.

As I mentioned already, a universal background check bill is also very popular, and one of the most common things suggested by Democrats, yet it is very unclear how effective it would be.

According to some popular estimates, about one in five gun transfers (sales or otherwise) happens without a background check, thanks to loopholes for unlicensed dealers who don't have to run background checks to sell a gun. But research on what happens when we make background check systems universal at the state level has been inconclusive, at best. Put differently: The background check system we have now does some good, but a universal background check system probably wouldn't move the needle much.

That so many of the most common suggestions for ending gun violence and mass shootings are not being acted upon, might be ineffective, or otherwise make the problem worse is a common theme here.

This too is part of our brokenness.

What we should do?

This should go without saying, but nobody in this country — except a very few sick criminals — want to see children slaughtered at school or people killed in gun violence. Republicans are not baby killers and Democrats are not communist authoritarians trying to steal your guns so the government can take over.

I'm one person. I do not have all the answers. But given that I just told you about all our brokenness, I can tell you what I think would work.

On an interpersonal level, we all need to have our eyes and ears out for gun violence. This includes everything from suicides to homicides to mass shootings. The Buffalo shooter announced his plan to an entire classroom. The Texas shooter reportedly posted his guns and a threat on Instagram before his violent act. There are almost always signs, and in retrospect they are often quite obvious. Your friends and your family are your responsibility; as a society we need to care for each other and ensure that the people we know and love do not become so isolated and lonely and angry that they will commit an act of violence like this.

When we do take these actions, we need a more engaged law enforcement response. We need clear protocols for what local police and the FBI should do — and we need to make those protocols strict. Far too often, in case after case, we learn that the interpersonal box was checked, that someone did try to get an eventual shooter help, did flag law enforcement, did what they were supposed to — but the institutions failed.

Relatedly, the National Rifle Association is right about something: We need to better enforce the laws we have and better utilize the resources that already exist. The background check system, for instance, is riddled with flaws. Local police, the military, federal and state courts, hospitals, and treatment providers regularly fail to send criminal or mental health records to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System when they are supposed to. In theory, nobody who has been convicted of a crime, committed to a mental institution, gotten a dishonorable discharge or has a record of drug addiction should be able to buy a gun with ease. But these failures mean licensed gun dealers regularly run a clean background check on someone who should be caught by the system. We need better enforcement of our background checks and more incentives for accurate reporting to take place.

Additionally, we do almost nothing about the people who lie on background check forms. There were 112,000 "lie-and-try" crimes in 2017 alone. 12 of them were prosecuted. If there was any semblance of a threat that lying to get a gun could get you in trouble, I'd bet a lot fewer people would do it. Yet it’s common knowledge among gun control advocates, the NRA, and criminals that lying on a background check form is a very low-risk activity.

And finally, I do believe we should create more friction.

I know that readers are always trying to sniff out my political leanings, so I'll say up front that I have no idea where this puts me on the political spectrum. As a general, blanket statement, the vast majority of Americans seem to think it should be harder to get a gun. Many of the gun owners I know agree with what I'm about to say, but as I've demonstrated above, today's "gun culture" seems totally divorced from what I used to understand it to be. I think there are many Republican politicians who believe what I'm about to say, but many of those who matter receive millions of dollars from the NRA, and I suspect their public positions are thus "compromised."

I think we should make gun ownership more like driving a car.

This is something I have proposed in past Tangle newsletters. It is a familiar structure that I believe makes a lot of sense. It is something that we know gets results. And it is a system that I do not believe would be an infringement of second amendment rights, which I support.

For instance, the same kinds of research that has shown universal background checks would do little to address gun violence and mass shootings also shows that a licensing system does both of those things rather well. Several big studies have been done on states that added a permit-to-purchase law for handguns, which usually requires people to obtain a permit from a police department before buying a gun.

In states like Connecticut, where the law was implemented, gun homicides and suicides went down. In states like Missouri, where those laws were repealed, gun homicides and suicides went up.

On top of a permit and licensing system, I believe mandatory classes or training are practical. I know some Americans and the gun lobby won't go for this, but I honestly believe they'd do a great deal of good and should be considered. The reasons for this seem obvious, but I suppose I'll explain them anyway: We don't allow a 15-year-old to get inside a car and drive without training or a supervisor, because we know a car is dangerous, and that teenager could kill someone or themselves. We also know people are not born with the ability to drive, so we teach them. This exact same logic applies to guns.

Now, I've made this point enough to hear the common refrain: "We weren't given a right to drive a car, we were guaranteed a right to bear arms." Yes, it's true that we were not granted the right to drive a car in the constitution. I suspect that is because cars didn't exist for another 100 years. However, it should be noted that your right to drive is actually a very interesting debate and one that has been considered before the Supreme Court.

Regardless, that debate is mostly moot for another reason: When was the last time you really felt that the government was restricting your ability to drive?

The truth is, the system of permitting driving and requiring classes to do it makes sense to  most of us, because it is sensible. It's a great way to know that people understand the machines they are operating, are responsible enough to use them safely, and reduce the odds they will accidentally (or intentionally) kill people.

Is it foolproof? Of course not. Car accidents are still very common, and sometimes people even use their cars as weapons, like the killer in Waukesha, Wisconsin. But that doesn't mean it wouldn't help. The research, and common sense, says it would. The least we could do as a collective society is try it. The least our legislators could do is have an honest debate about it.

In the end, my most fervent wish is that this moment ends differently than all the others.

It is that this shooting, and gun violence more generally, cease to be as predictable as the sun rising and setting. And that maybe this time we can be shocked into action, into change, into a collective will to better look out for each other and a collective movement to shore up our laws and follow the research.

Am I optimistic? I'm not. But we should all say the obvious out loud: This is not about one issue, and this is not a problem we simply can't prevent. The least we can do — for the kids of Uvalde and the shoppers in Buffalo and all the victims before them — is have some hope, and join together in refusing to accept this as normal.

I know we are broken, but I hope we are not so broken we can’t do that.

*UPDATE: Contemporaneous reporting and a press briefing from Texas officials have contradicted claims the shooter was wearing body armor and that there was a shootout at the school. Details are still emerging.

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Isaac Saul
I'm a politics reporter who grew up in Bucks County, PA — one of the most politically divided counties in America. I'm trying to fix the way we consume political news.