The Violent Fantasy Behind the Texas Governor’s Pardon Demand
A grant of clemency would encourage those who dream about someday engaging in murderous political violence.
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In July 2020, at the height of protests over the murder of George Floyd by a police officer, Daniel Perry considered killing someone.
“I might have to kill a few people on my way to work, they are rioting outside my apartment complex,” Perry, then a 35-year-old Army sergeant, wrote to a friend, the Austin Chronicle reported. It wasn’t the first time Perry had spoken about killing people on social media or in messages with friends. On another occasion, Perry mused, “I might go to Dallas to shoot looters.”
After all this talk, Perry did shoot a Black Lives Matter protester in downtown Austin, an Air Force veteran and libertarian activist named Garrett Foster, who had been legally carrying an AK-47 at the protest. Perry, who was working as a rideshare driver, sped his car into the crowd, witnesses said, then opened fire on Foster. Perry claimed that he had acted in self-defense and that Foster had been raising his rifle, but prosecutorial witnesses told the jury during his trial that Foster had done nothing of the sort. “I believe he was going to aim at me,” Perry told police in an initial interview, having called law enforcement and turned himself in after the shooting. “I didn’t want to give him a chance to aim at me.”
Thursday night, the judge in Perry’s case unsealed a filing that also contained messages the jury did not see before the verdict. The document shows Perry sharing racist memes, referring to Black protesters as “monkeys,” and musing about “hunting Muslims in Europe.” Perry’s attorneys are reportedly seeking a new trial.
Perry had lived out his fantasy. There was only one problem: His public and private expressions of violent aggression toward protesters, and his decision to drive his car into the crowd, led a Texas jury to conclude that the shooting was unjustified. The state’s stand-your-ground law does not allow those who provoke a confrontation with the aim of using lethal violence to justify their actions as self-defense. Proving that intent sets a deliberately high standard for prosecutors, because it requires strong evidence of what the accused is thinking. Yet the prosecutors in this case managed to do so in a very gun-friendly state, as the journalist Radley Balko writes, because of “ample evidence that Perry intended to harm the protesters,” including testimony that Perry had asked a friend about the legality of “other incidents in which someone had shot at protesters.” The documentation of ill intent here is unusually comprehensive.
Convicted of murder, Perry became a right-wing political martyr. Last weekend, Texas Republican Governor Greg Abbott announced that he would ask the Texas parole board to recommend a pardon for Perry, following coverage from the Fox News host Tucker Carlson portraying his conviction as unjust and criticizing Abbott. Carlson characterized Perry’s conviction by a jury of his peers in one of the most pro-gun states in the union, not as a result of the atypical volume of evidence, but as a conspiracy by the liberal billionaire George Soros, who paid “people to put his political opponents in jail.” Fox News has a disproportionate influence over the only constituency Abbott heeds, which is Republican primary voters.
At the center of this series of events is the right-wing fantasy of murdering political opponents and getting away with it, one that the firearm industry has used to sell weapons and that ambitious right-wing politicians have used to win votes. Put simply, some conservatives believe that Perry’s conviction was unjust because they do not believe that it should be a crime to kill a Black Lives Matter “rioter,” a description that in the right-wing imagination applies to any and all BLM protesters regardless of their actions.
There are a number of factors involved in the popularity of this fantasy, including urban-rural polarization and the GOP’s decision to press its advantage in an American electoral system that rewards the dispersed geography of its political coalition. This approach demands that Republican leaders feed their supporters a constant diet of culture-war red meat in order to maintain a sense that their constituents’ way of life is in danger of imminent destruction. Such catastrophism has both inspired and been inspired by a shift in how the firearms industry sells weapons.
Since the expiration of the federal assault-weapons ban in 2004, the firearm industry has juiced its sales by inundating conservatives with advertising that promotes guns as a cure for compromised masculinity, and implies that they need to stockpile firearms for an inevitable political conflict in which they will finally get to kill people they don’t like. That’s partly how we ended up with a haggard pop star so unnerved by an inclusive corporate ad campaign that he shoots at beer cans to self-soothe, a tough guy literally triggered by rainbows.
Gun sales have risen dramatically over the past few years. “Those sales have only confirmed the industry’s strategy for achieving growth, and so the marketing effort has become only more addicted to conspiracy-theory-fueled political partisanship,” Ryan Busse, a former firearms-industry executive, wrote in The Atlantic in 2022. “America is seeing the deadly results of the violence incubated by these dark advertising fantasies.”
One might question how often guns are actually used in self-defense, but marketing guns for self-defense or hunting at least has no inherent partisan salience, and America has a long cultural and legal tradition of firearm ownership for such purposes. Perhaps the crucial difference here is the shift from individual to collective self-defense—instead of just selling the possibility of defending your home from a nighttime intruder, the industry and its allies are now selling the idea that buying a gun turns you into a soldier defending civilization itself from the barbarian hordes. You know, people who disagree with them politically. In this worldview, violence against such people is by definition “self-defense,” regardless of the specific circumstances.
The people who have adopted this political and consumer identity will not necessarily act out violently. In fact, the overwhelming majority of them will not. In a country of more than 300 million with lax gun laws, some small number will act on these beliefs, to bloody and tragic results. But those who have embraced such an identity will be more willing to rationalize, excuse, or defend political violence against their opponents when it does happen. They will also be more open to the illiberal use of state force against those they see as foes in an existential battle.
Advertising guns for an imminent political conflict has reshaped American gun culture, enlarging a voting constituency that opposes all firearm restrictions, in part because its members dream about someday engaging in murderous political violence. This faction also demands that politicians shape the law so that they can do so with impunity.
That political pressure was bearing down on Abbott when he made the decision to request that the pardon board grant clemency to Perry. The injustice is that Perry was convicted of murder for killing someone who deserved to die because he was supporting a left-wing cause. The legal system built by decades of Republican dominance in Texas was meant to justify such killings, and when it failed to do so, the governor had to intervene. Facing prison time for shooting a political enemy would spoil the reverie sold to conservatives by their leaders and by the firearm industry—the promise that one day, they too could kill one of the barbarian horde and get away with it. And that would be unjust.