Only a Broken Society Would Focus on the Police Failures in Uvalde

America seems to have given up on preventing mass shootings and has resigned itself to responding faster and more courageously.

An AR-15–style rifle with an American flag on it
George Frey / AFP / Getty

About the author: David A. Graham is a staff writer at The Atlantic.

Did the police response in Uvalde get anything right? From the moment a gunman arrived at Robb Elementary School in the Texas town, law enforcement seems to have erred over and over: A school resource officer did not, it now seems, engage the shooter; officers waited outside the classroom even as the shooting continued; and initial statements about the response have been withdrawn or disproved.

Understanding what really happened and why is essential. The officers who responded appear to have disregarded more than 20 years of consensus, developed after the Columbine massacre, that says officers should intervene as quickly as possible in an active-shooter situation, rather than waiting for tactical teams to arrive, the better to prevent further loss of life and to get aid to the injured. Experts on active-shooter response told me they are baffled by choices made on the ground in Uvalde. In part because official statements have changed so quickly, we don’t know how many lives (if any) a faster intervention might have saved.

The chaos also shows why it’s important to be skeptical of official narratives from police departments, a lesson that Governor Greg Abbott has learned the hard way. Whether through duplicity, as in the initial account of George Floyd’s death, or simple confusion in a hectic case, the first things the public learns are often wrong. Now the Uvalde school police have stopped cooperating with a state investigation, and because cops are usually happy to argue that you should talk to the police if you have nothing to hide, that’s a bad sign about what an investigation might find.

The police errors make for an alluring target, because they are so glaring and because they appeal to both sides of our intense partisan drive, catering simultaneously to progressive skepticism of police and conservative desire to change the subject away from guns. As the epidemic of school shootings continues, many policy makers have argued that better policing and security protocols are the best way to keep children safe when violence strikes. Without minimizing the police failures, though, I worry that too much focus on them risks eclipsing the bigger picture, which is that the gravest failures happened before the gunman arrived at the school and opened fire.

The fundamental problem, of course, is that semiautomatic weapons are easily available to nearly anyone in the United States with relatively little trouble. Some reporting indicates that the Uvalde shooter was a victim of bullying, and though this may have played a role in his psychology, bullying is universal and timeless; readily accessible assault rifles are not. Gun-rights advocates used to try to sidestep this argument, arguing that prospective killers would find other ways to kill if guns were harder to find, but these days, with their position ascendant in the legal system, they hardly bother, instead pointing out that courts are interpreting the Constitution to block most gun laws. They are correct, but that doesn’t negate the simple fact that easy access to guns is what makes this country different. The guns and ammunition used in Uvalde were legally purchased, and no police officer could do anything about them until the shooter began committing crimes—by which point even an effective police response would have merely limited, not stopped, the slaughter, given how much death a shooter armed with an AR-15 can inflict, and how quickly.

Responding officers can make the best or worst of a bad situation, but once police are called, it’s already too late. To say that officers in Uvalde disregarded more than 20 years of doctrine about active shooters is an indictment not only of the police but also of how the United States has over the same period failed to take effective steps to prevent massacres in places like schools—in fact, such massacres have become far more frequent. Over the past two weeks or so alone, the nation has seen multiple-fatality shootings in cities including Buffalo, New York; Uvalde; Tulsa, Oklahoma; and Stanwood, Michigan. The police are asked to solve problems that every other part of society has been unwilling or unable to handle, and the barbarity, inefficacy, and clumsiness of police responses are products of that collapse.

Sir Robert Peel, the father of modern policing, argued that the goal of a police force was not catching criminals after the fact but preventing crime, and it’s hard to see how police might have been able to prevent the Uvalde massacre. So-called red-flag laws, which allow courts to temporarily seize guns from people if they might be a danger to themselves or others, may indeed be a commonsense measure, but there’s precious little evidence that they are useful in stopping mass shootings. (They seem to work better for preventing suicides.)

Armed guards at schools, better preparation, fortifying schools—all of these have been proposed as good solutions, but few of them seem to work all that well in practice. Schools in Texas had already been “hardened,” but that didn’t prevent the horror in Uvalde. The school district had drilled for a mass-shooting event. No armed officer was stationed at the school when the gunman struck. (In Buffalo, a retired police officer serving as a security guard engaged and fired at the shooter, and authorities say he saved lives by buying time; despite this apparent heroism, 10 people died.)

Last week, a spokesperson for the Texas Department of Public Safety was widely mocked for his explanation of police officers’ hesitation at the schoolhouse door. “They could’ve been shot. They could’ve been killed,” he said. Many people found this unsatisfying, demanding that police be ready to risk their lives to save children. They’re right to be angry, and right to expect that officers would at least follow the training they received. But demanding that police respond more swiftly and courageously once the slaughter of schoolchildren has already begun is itself the mark of a broken society, which no longer seems able to ask that we prevent such killings in the first place.