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Texas Police Chief Doubles Down in War of Words With NRA

What started with a pained Facebook post by Chief Art Acevedo after yet another school shooting Friday has escalated into a full-on war of words with the nation's gun lobby.

By St. John Barned-Smith

What started with a pained Facebook post by Chief Art Acevedo after yet another school shooting Friday has escalated into a full-on war of words with the nation's gun lobby.

Hours after a gunman killed 10 people and wounded 13 others -- including a retired Houston police officer -- Acevedo tweeted his frustration, excoriating elected officials for failing "to enact common sense statutes & policies & continue to fail our families & especially our children."

Acevedo's frustrated cry -- followed by a Facebook post where he said he'd hit "rock bottom" and told people they could unfriend him if they thought guns weren't a problem -- was met with swift reaction from the National Rifle Association and some prominent conservatives.

"@ArtAcevedo plays the part of a police chief ... he says he wants to go after criminals, but for him apparently the easiest way to do that is to make new criminals that are easy to catch -- make criminals out of law-abiding gun owners," NRATV tweeted late Monday.

Not one to back down from a public fight, Acevedo didn't let it go, engaging in a running Twitter battle with the NRA's Dana Loesch and Grant Stinchfield, accusing them of deliberately mischaracterizing his comments and suggesting reforms that he said he could reduce gun violence.

"TEXAS police executives and Rank & file standing together to protect the 2nd Amendment by keeping firearms in the hands of law abiding Americans [of] sound mind," he wrote Monday night. "History will show we are on the side of responsible gun owners & most Americans."

In an interview at police headquarters Tuesday afternoon, Acevedo reiterated his past calls for gun reform that followed the mass shooting in Las Vegas in October but said the chaos and anguish of the Santa Fe massacre struck home more sharply, particularly after visiting wounded officer John Barnes and his family.

"To see the anguish, to feel the energy, that pain on the faces of the people in Santa Fe, then to walk into the hospital to see John Barnes' family, to visit with them, to see the pain in his children's faces," he said.

"The 'party of law enforcement' may not care, but you know what? They're not the ones burying our officers," he said. "Maybe if they came out and had to make the notifications, and see the bodies of dead police officers who've been shot, laying in their own pool of blood, maybe all these people that are supposed to be the party of law and order will start caring about law and order and will start protecting the Second Amendment and law abiding Americans by enacting pragmatic reforms that are achievable."

The NRA did not respond to a request for comment.


'Want to see action'

Acevedo said the nation needs a "comprehensive approach" to rein in gun violence, including a national standard for background checks before all sales -- including at gun shows. He also called for "real consequences" for buyers and sellers trying to circumvent such checks, strict mental health requirements to notify law enforcement agencies if someone is a potential threat, and stricter requirements for storing firearms.

"We need to focus on being pragmatic," he said. "None of us want to see gun confiscations of people that are law-abiding Americans of sound mind and responsible gun owners, but we do want to see action against those that are irresponsible, are criminals, or are in psychological distress."

In the wake of the Santa Fe shooting -- the second mass shooting in Texas in less than a year -- Gov. Greg Abbott launched a three-day roundtable discussion that started Tuesday on ways to prevent similar tragedies.

"The answers are not always immediate," Abbott said. "But the answers will come."

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick said lawmakers and school officials need to think more creatively to improve school safety, by limiting the entrances and exits into schools and altering school start times "so that not all students show up at once."

Mustafa Tameez, a local political consultant who formerly worked at the Department of Homeland Security, said Acevedo's remarks were a "clear-eyed" assessment from an expert.

"This is a real-world issue, and I don't think there's a single police chief of a major city who would disagree with him," Tameez said.

Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez, former New York Commissioner Bill Bratton and Juan Perez, director of the Miami-Dade Police Department, supported Acevedo on Twitter.

"Something needs to change," Gonzalez said.

"We've always had guns," Perez said, "yet over the last two decades mass shootings have become a fad, except it does not go away."

Mayor Sylvester Turner issued a statement calling for metal detectors at schools across Houston ISD, with other reforms.

"The next steps should be policy changes to provide school districts in our local communities and across Texas with resources to keep students and teachers safe," he said.

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Aimee Turney, a volunteer with the Texas chapter of Moms Demand Action, said the NRA's views didn't represent the views of a majority of Texans.

"Every time I hear about another shooting in our state -- at a school, at a church, at a home -- I hit rock bottom all over again," she said, in an email. "They are out of touch and unwilling to embrace common-sense policies that would save lives while also respecting the Second Amendment."

The confrontations came after Friday's massacre at Santa Fe High School, where a gunman killed 10 people and wounded 13, including Barnes, a 49-year-old school resource officer who remains hospitalized in critical condition after being shot in the arm. A 17-year-old student, Dimitrios Pagourtzis, is charged with capital murder and aggravated assault of a public servant.


Harsh words

Acevedo's comments are not the first time the chief -- who oversees a department that investigates 400 firearm-related deaths a year -- has criticized the toll inflicted by gun violence.

After the mass shooting in Las Vegas killed nearly 60 people and injured hundreds more, Acevedo tweeted, "When will we stand up & say enough? On this Sabbath Sunday I can say I've spoken out against gun violence, can you? If not now, then when?"

Rice University political scientist Mark Jones said Acevedo's style was a departure from past police chiefs Harold Hurtt and Charles A. McClelland, by taking more active stances on issues outside of the core of his job policing America's fourth largest city.

"For an appointed chief of police to be making those statements, it does raise some eyebrows," he said. "It's not necessarily a bad thing ... it's just a different style from his immediate predecessors."

After the Santa Fe shootings, conservative radio talk show host Michael Berry said he disagreed with Acevedo, as did the Weekly Standard's Kevin D. Williamson, who wrote an essay about Acevedo's comments entitled, "Remember Who Works for Whom, Chief Acevedo."

"Chief Acevedo should stick to policing crime in Houston rather than the political views of the people for whom -- in case he has forgotten -- he works," Williamson wrote.

The most vituperative comments, however, came from the NRA, whose hosts on Monday attacked Acevedo in a series of tweets as being soft on crime and a threat to gun owners.

"@ArtAcevedo is a police chief who thinks it's completely appropriate to ignore the law of the land when it concerns legal immigration," Loesch said, in an NRATV spot Monday afternoon. "But (he) thinks that he has the right to apparently go into every home in Texas and inspect how everybody's storing their #firearms."

As he had several other times, Acevedo returned fire -- and he didn't hold back.

"Good night @NRATV, your desperation is evident by your attacks," he wrote. "You are on the wrong side of history & responsible gun owners & the pragmatic American people, led by the youth of our great Nation, will ultimately win the day."

(c)2018 the Houston Chronicle

Caroline Cournoyer is GOVERNING's senior web editor.
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