Political evasions taint the work of the House Committee Report on the Robb Elementary School Mass Shooting

The House investigative committee’s report on the Robb Elementary School mass shooting confirmed much of what had been trickling out about how the situation unfolded, particularly the failures of the law enforcement response and in the execution of school safety procedures at the school. Most media coverage of the report emphasizes the directness of the report in detailing the failures in implementation of safety practices at Robb Elementary, and the failure to follow established policy, lack of leadership, and general chaos among all law enforcement on the scene. But the report also reflects the politics of the moment in its lack of detail regarding the roles played by state agencies, particularly the heavily represented Texas Department of Public Safety – and, most glaringly, leaves the consequences of the killers’ choice of weaponry unaddressed, even as that weapon hovers over the very detailed narrative of what the law enforcement personnel were doing – and more critically, what they were not doing – in the hallway outside the rooms where nineteen children and two adults were murdered. 

The lack of detailed analysis of what DPS did and didn’t do follows weeks of shifting stories about the law enforcement response generally and DPS in particular, including DPS Director Steve McCraw’s public testimony before the Senate State Affairs committee last month. One of the most striking elements of the report that is universally noted in coverage is its accounting of the massive law enforcement presence that converged on the school: 376 responders from 23 federal, state, and local agencies were on site that day. News coverage of the report generally emphasized  the report’s charge of “systemic failure” (p.5) and the finding that “blame for the failure to swiftly confront the gunman rested not only with the school police chief, but also with the scores of state and federal officers who gathered at the deadly scene but did not act,” as The New York Times summarized. But a close reading of the report finds scant discussion of the actions (or lack thereof) of state agency personnel - the tally of law enforcement on site counted 91 Texas DPS responders on site – amidst the continuing eagerness to emphasize poor decisions made by local authorities, particularly Uvalde CISD Police Chief Arredondo 

While individual DPS personnel appear briefly in the report, there is no sustained attention to what DPS personnel were or were not doing, though media coverage (particularly in national outlets) has generally painted all agencies with a broad brush in the wake of the report.  The report abets this approach somewhat. In its outlined “Factual conclusions” on law enforcement that concludes the report, one of the most widely quoted passages charges, “There was an overall lackadaisical approach by law enforcement at the scene” (P. 75). 

Yet when the report gets down to brass tacks, both Chief Arredondo and federal responders (the Border Patrol tactical team, BORTAC), come in for direct blame:

“x.Chief Arredondo did not actually exercise tactical incident command over the BORTAC team, nor did the BORTAC team seek instruction from Chief Arredondo.

w. By the time the BORTAC team breached the classrooms, the tactical command inside the building had been de facto assumed by BORTAC.

x. Acting on effectively the same information available to Chief Arredondo, including an assumption of injured victims in the room, the BORTAC commander on scene waited until arranging a rifle-rated shield and obtaining a working master key before attempting to breach the classrooms” (p. 76).

If this account is accurate, DPS’s absence in this summary begs a lot of questions of just what DPS was doing that day. 

Some of those questions might get at least asked. As widely reported, DPS announced Monday (per The Texas Tribune) that it had formed an internal committee to review “how 91 state troopers and Rangers responded to the Robb Elementary School shooting to determine if they violated any policies or laws.” A DPS spokesman flagged the ongoing criminal investigation of the entire event that includes “examining the actions of every member of law enforcement agency that day,” and was quoted saying that, “The criminal investigation always takes precedent but is typically followed by a comprehensive administrative review of this nature.” Calls for legislative oversight of this internal review soon followed, including from Senator Roland Gutierrez, who represents Uvalde.

An absence in the House report even more glaring than the soft-pedaling of the actions or inactions of DPS is its inattention to the role of the shooter’s choice of weapon, and the impact that awareness of the use of a semi-automatic, AR-15 style rifle had on the decision-making and tactics of the law enforcement officials on site - particularly the delay in confronting the shooter. While the report goes into some detail about how the killer obtained the weapons, ammunition, and other accessories (based largely on FBI interviews, see ps 35-36), the report offers no mention or analysis about how the shooter’s choice of weapon may have affected the poor decision making and tentative tactical response that resulted in the now-infamous delay in confronting the killer, nor its impact on the severity of the injuries suffered and the number of fatalities.  

The report rounds up the usual factors that intersect school shootings similar to the one at Robb, and weaves them into a narrative that reveals much about the lead-up to the shooting and the flawed response. While the report and other available information rightly illustrates that there are clearly multiple contributing explanatory factors at play in the mass shooting, the rhetorical strategy in the report is very familiar: It gives pride of place to factors emphasized by Republican policymakers and public figures while deemphasizing the lethality of the weapon that the killer bought legally and used to kill his victims – and, as the report repeatedly portrays but does not explicitly zero in on, that clearly intimidated the nearly dozens of first responders gathered around him by heightening their concerns about their own safety (in part, by using the weapon to shoot at them during a first, failed attempt to enter the room where he killed most of his victims). 

The committee systematically catalogs the killer’s family background, leading with his “unstable home life with no father figure and a mother struggling with a substance abuse disorder” (p. 72), which are given pride of place in both the body of the report and the “factual conclusions.”  It details how he was bullied, his use of social media and gaming, and his social isolation – all of which fit familiar patterns in mass killings by young men. The report also provides detailed accounts of the safety and response procedures adopted by Uvalde CISD, the deeply flawed implementation of them both before and during the shooting, and a detailed narrative of how the fatally flawed tactical response by law enforcement unfolded inside the west building where the shooter committed his crimes (the failure to account for the actions of DPS personnel notwithstanding). 

But while the committee leaves no stone unturned in their search for contributing causes, the report contains no explicit analysis of how awareness of the weaponry among responders likely impacted the delay in confronting the shooter – even though the narrative strongly points to this being the case. The report, like many observers, criticizes police as implicitly cowardly even as it evades any engagement of the impact of the lethality of the killer’s weapon of choice in its account of the factors at play in an emergency response that “failed to prioritize saving the lives of innocent victims over their own safety” (p. 7).  While the detailed narrative effectively portrays the convergence of poor decision-making, lack of leadership, and terrible communication and information flow during the tactical response, the report is evasively circumspect in conveying how the shooter’s use of an semi-automatic rifle increased the threat to the responders – and, critically, studiously avoids explicitly linking the delay in confronting the shooter to the the responders’ awareness of that threat. 

The report makes it clear that the heightened threat to law enforcement posed by the shooter’s munitions hovered over the responders in the period between the shooter’s repelling their initial attempt to enter the room where the victims were shot to death, and their much later re-entry. Based on video and testimony, the report describes the “cloud of debris in the hallway from drywall, as well as bullet holes in the walls and spent rifle casings on the floor” that initial responders found when they entered the building (see ps. 50 and 74). The report recounts Uvalde ISD Police Chief Arrendondo telling the Uvalde Police Chief twice in his first call from the site that the shooter “has an AR15.” The report also concludes that “it is likely that one of the bullets passed through the walls and struck Ms. Avila, the teacher in Room 109,” a room that the building map in the report illustrates was the second room down the hallway from the adjoining rooms (111 and 112). The responders knew that they were vulnerable to being seriously injured or killed, including being shot through walls and doors. (Though the perspective on the surveillance videos is open to some interpretation, available video seems to suggest that the responders gathering at the far ends of the hallways, as well as the focus on the delivery of forced entry tools and keys, reflected concerns about the seemingly demonstrated danger of high-caliber rounds passing through walls and doors.)

While the report describes different activities and dynamics on the north and south ends of the hallways, the fatally disconnected groups of responders had one thing in common: they were waiting for equipment that would provide them with more defense from the high-powered weapon they all knew was being used by the shooter. This included the group of Border Patrol officers that eventually acted – per the report, they waited “until arranging a rifle-rated shield and obtaining a working master key before attempting to breach the classrooms” (p. 76). That account leads to the conclusion that the wait was predicated on the assessment of the threat posed by the weapon on the other side of the door, at which point “the tactical command inside the building had been de facto assumed by BORTAC” (p. 76).

Yet for all of the detail in the report that illustrates the extent to which the weapon used by the killer shaped the tentative tactics and delays demonstrated by first responders, this clear and present element of the failed response is unaddressed by the committee.

This suggests a collision between the very familiar politics of gun policy in Texas and mounting public demands for transparency and accountability – and is a dispiriting sign that the committee report was strongly shaped by the former even as it performed some service to the latter. That service does not obscure the strong whiff of politics in the report’s at best obtuse approach to the role of the munitions the 18-year old killer bought legally had on his crimes.

The politics shaping the rhetorical approach of the report, especially the deflection of the role of an assault weapon, are evident in the partisan views of guns and gun violence found in Texas public opinion. Texas Politics Project polling repeatedly finds seemingly contradictory patterns in public opinion that Republican elected officials and policy makers in Texas manage in increasingly predictable ways in the aftermath of mass killings, including school shootings, to deflect attention away from serious consideration of meaningful gun safety measures. 

On one hand, significant shares of Texans express support for gun safety measures that are supported by pluralities or even majorities of Texans. In our June 2022 poll, conducted just a few week after the Uvalde murders, 78% of Texans supported background checks on all gun purchases, including 66% of Republicans; 70% supported raising the minimum age to buy a firearm to from 18 to 21 years of age, including 56% of Republicans; and 66% of Texans supported allowing courts to require a person determined to be a risk to themselves or others to temporarily surrender guns in their possession - including 49% of Texas Republicans (among whom 40% opposed such “red flag” lasws and 12% had no opinion). Tellingly, partisans are much more polarized when asked about "banning the sale of selected semi-automatic rifles, often referred to as assault weapons," though Texans overall support a ban – 54%, while 39% oppose. But only 31% of Repoublicans support a ban, while 63% opose it - 47% strongly. Among Democrats, 84% support a ban, 72% strongly. Herein lies an obvious potential sensitivity to emphasizing the role of the killer's weapon in the report, amplified still more by the specific history of the subject of assault weapons in Beto O'Rourke's political career as he challenges Greg Abbott in the gubernatorial race.

Loading chart...
Strongly support42%
Somewhat support12%
Somewhat oppose11%
Strongly oppose28%
Don't know/No opinion7%

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Strongly support72%36%18%
Somewhat support12%8%13%
Somewhat oppose7%9%16%
Strongly oppose5%32%47%
Don't know/No opinion4%15%7%

However, even after the Uvalde shootings (as after other similar mass shooting in Texas), underlying attitudes about the factors most to blame mass shootings convey sharp partisan differences. Most importantly, as Joshua Blank wrote in a post shortly after the Uvalde mass shooting:

In Texas, where Republicans make up the majority of the voters and all of the statewide elected officials, few Republicans hold the belief that gun laws or easy access to guns are to blame for mass shootings. And because partisan views of the causes of mass shootings are different, and reinforced by elites in both parties, the most likely outcome is gridlock once discussion of any actual policy begins.

After Blank made that observation in May, using data from November 2015 and June 2018, results in the June Texas Politics Project poll confirmed the point again. As the graphic below illustrates, asked to identify the factor most to blame for mass shootings from a list of commonly cited causes (most of which show up in some form in the just-issued report), the party differences were stark. 

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Current gun laws50%17%6%
Failures of the mental health system13%23%25%
Unstable family situations3%12%21%
Spread of extremism on the internet15%10%6%
Media attention given to perpetrators4%4%13%
Insufficient security at public buildings2%7%11%
Inflammatory political language5%5%3%
Violence in popular culture3%3%8%
Drug use0%3%2%
Don't know/No opinion5%14%4%

Most relevant to the point at hand: the two most common factors cited by Texas Republicans were “failures of the mental health system” (25%) and “unstable family situations” (21%); only 6% cited “current gun laws,” which was the choice of 50% of Democrats and 25% of Texans overall. In stark contrast with the report’s inattention to the role of the gun used in the Uvalde murders, the committee went into great detail about the attacker’s family life in the body of the report (ps. 29-34); and in the “Home and family” subsection of the “Factual conclusions” ostensibly summarizing “information that was known or knowable about the attacker,” the top three points of information are: 

“i. The attacker had an unstable home life with no father figure and a mother struggling with a substance abuse disorder.

ii. The attacker’s family moved often and lived in relative poverty.

iii. The attacker developed sociopathic and violent tendencies, but he received no mental health assistance” (p.72)

Highlighting the alignment between the emphasis placed on the attacker’s family context in the report and Republican beliefs about the factors to blame for mass shootings isn’t to say the committee report is inaccurate - the narrative evidence provided fits well enough with the conclusions above. And even if point iii. seems to be aggressive in suggesting an ad hoc medical diagnosis of sociopathy, all of these points are plausible, even necessary, elements of a reasonable effort to make a preliminary effort to provide “answers and transparency” to the Uvalde community (p.1).

The same can’t be said of the report’s conclusions on the gun used in the murders, which merited three mentions, none of which speak at all to the possible role the weapon played in conditioning the law enforcement response to the attack (or its lethality). A point in the “Home and family” subsection recounts the refusal of family members to make illegal straw purchases on the killer’s behalf prior to his 18th birthday; another point in the same section underlines that some family members “became aware that the attacker had bought guns,” and that his grandparents demanded the guns be removed from their home.

The only other section focusing on the nature of the munitions legally obtained and then used by the shooter requires complete quotation in order to capture its brazen achievement in bureaucratic obtuseness and political evasion in the face of human misery:

“f. Firearms and ammunition sellers: There was no legal impediment to the attacker buying two AR-15-style rifles, 60 magazines, and over 2,000 rounds of ammunition when he turned 18. The ATF was not required to notify the local sheriff of the multiple purchases.” 

That’s it for direct discussion – or “Factual conclusions,” if you will – of the munitions an 18-year old bought legally, used to murder 19 children and two teachers, and which seem to have cowed dozens of armed and trained law enforcement professionals staged just a few yards from the killer, failures in command and communication notwithstanding.

While the report may have contributed to the public’s understanding of the mass killings at Robb Elementary by clarifying the shooter’s background, detailing the deeply flawed response, and highlighting its already oft-cited discovery of “systemic failures,” its achievements and loftier ambitions are compromised by its clear subservience to this political expediency of an election year in a one-party state. The report’s effective masking of the politics at work with declarative prose, seemingly bold assignments of blame in the case of obvious failings, and some detailed footnotes only add to the bitter political aftertaste of the enterprise. 

The deflection of any examination of what DPS did or (more likely) didn’t do that day carries a strong whiff of election year politics – and adds one more instance of legislative deference to the executive branch, and water carrying for the governor, to an already long list. Those disappointed in the lack of accountability on that front might take some comfort in the fact that this is likely not the last we’ve heard on the subject. Should continuing investigations, either internal or in the legislature, find fault with DPS, there will likely be a renewed search for more scapegoats. If you doubt this, check in with the now-former members of the Public Utility Commission who were in office in February, 2021. 

Yet the political undertones of the business-as-usual political CYA service to DPS are nothing compared to the crass political avoidance of the importance of the weapon used by the killer to understanding the law enforcement failures in Uvalde on May 24. The evasions begin in the preface, where the committee’s caveats about the preliminary nature of the report due to ongoing investigations includes noting that “medical examiners have not yet issued any reports about their findings” – subtly telegraphing the omission of any discussion of the documented trauma such weapons have inflicted on children killed with similar high-caliber semi-automatic rifles in other school shootings. The evasion continues through the final page of the report’s analysis, in the last points of the long list of factual conclusions in the “Law enforcement response” section:

y. The Committee has not received medical evidence that would inform a

judgment about whether breaching the classroom sooner than the

approximately 73 minutes that passed between the first responders’ initial

arrival at the west building and their eventual breach of the classrooms could

have been saved lives or mitigated injuries.

i. As described above, it is likely that most of the deceased victims

perished immediately during the attacker’s initial barrage of gunfire.

ii. However, given the information known about victims who survived

through the time of the breach and who later died on the way to the

hospital, it is plausible that some victims could have survived if they

had not had to wait 73 additional minutes for rescue.

One last time, the report introduces questions about the lethality of the weapon involved, yet, particularly in point i., declines to make explicit the underlying logic of the assertion (and quickly moves on from the likely account to a “plausible” scenario which directs responsibility back to the delayed law enforcement response or the schools "regretable culture of non-compliance"). These last bullet points provide one last grim achievement in the rhetoric of cool bureaucratic misdirection in the presence of horror. The final words of the document which immediately follow – a list of the names of those killed in the attack – can’t be compromised by the committee's evasions. If only that were true of the rest of the committee’s work.