'We Care Just as Much': A Republican Reflects on the Parkland Shooting

Texas Representative Joe Barton, a survivor of last summer’s mass shooting at a congressional baseball practice, talks about his reaction to the attack in Florida.

Texas Representative Joe Barton (Mario Anzuoni / Reuters)

Joe Barton didn’t see the shooter until the end. For 10 minutes he lay face down behind the dugout, tasting the dirt, listening to the gunfire. Then, for several seconds, all would go quiet. “I thought it was over, but then it wasn’t,” Barton says. The shooter had two weapons, and he’d cease fire to reload or switch from his pistol to his semi-automatic rifle. In those silent seconds, Barton’s then 11-year-old son, Jack, would peek out from under the car where he was hiding. His father would frantically yell at him to get back down.

It was June 14, 2017, a steaming morning at the Alexandria park where Republican lawmakers had gathered for baseball practice. The annual congressional baseball game was the next day and Barton, a Texas representative and the team’s manager, had scheduled one last get-together on the field.

Just after 7 a.m., a man named James Hodgkinson, toting a 9mm Smith & Wesson handgun and a SKS rifle, approached the field near third-base and opened fire. He gravely wounded House Majority Whip Steve Scalise, a bullet scissoring through and exploding into thousands of tiny fragments inside his hip. He hit Capitol Police Officer Crystal Griner in the ankle, and congressional aide Zack Barth in the calf. Matt Mika, a lobbyist, took a series of blows to the chest. Hodgkinson, a left-wing activist, went down after a shootout with Capitol police and Alexandria police; he would later die in surgery.

Scalise was airlifted to MedStar. Over the next several days, he underwent a series of surgeries. Meanwhile, for the first time since Gabby Giffords was shot in the head in 2011, Americans breathed the phrase “assassination attempt” aloud.

The story may be familiar, but folks like Barton grapple with new facets of it all the time, remembering the particular ring of that first round of bullets, or how there is nothing so wrenching as not knowing whether you can protect your own child. The lawmakers on the field that day still gather from time to time, Barton told me, to talk through those impossible 10 minutes and their aftermath.

Which is why he finds it all the more frustrating, Barton told me on Thursday evening, when people cry that Republicans are unfeeling, uncaring in the aftermath of a mass shooting, like Wednesday’s tragedy in a Parkland, Florida, high school, where 17 people were murdered. “In terms of feelings, I don’t think there’s a difference between a liberal Democrat or a conservative Republican,” he said. “Regardless of your viewpoint, you’re just as upset. We care just as much. I can guarantee you that GOP members of the baseball team care.”

“We all want to do what’s right,” he added. “We just have different philosophical viewpoints.”

Here’s another story Americans know well. Following a mass shooting, before the smell of gunsmoke has dissipated, Democrats plead for Congress to take up something, anything, on gun control. Republicans issue thoughts and prayers, and they are mocked for those thoughts and prayers. Social-media users share just how much money each Republican lawmaker receives from the National Rifle Association. (Barton received $11,200 from gun-rights groups in the 2016 election cycle.) Republicans, in turn, ask how the tragedy at hand would have been prevented by a weapons ban, or stricter background checks. It is a vicious cycle. It is a fast cycle. And it goes dormant until the next shooting.

I asked a number of Republican lawmakers to speak about what they think about in these moments, and what, if anything, could be done legislatively to prevent the “next time.” Barton was the only one who agreed to talk. And he happened to be one of the few who had experienced an attempted mass shooting firsthand. His feelings on gun control hadn’t changed since then, he told me, but he does feel more committed to giving authorities more power to surveill or arrest those who exhibit the “warning signs” of a shooter.

“It affects you when you get shot at, when your children get shot at,” he said. “In our case we had one shooter, a guy from Illinois mad that Trump won, and decided to come to Washington and shoot GOP congressmen. In Florida, this was somebody who’d been kicked out of school, turned into the FBI, so you wanna ask the people who investigated this young man: Why didn’t they try to do something?

“Our system of laws, where you’re innocent until proven guilty, makes it very difficult to detain someone until they actually do something,” he continued. “But he should’ve been … it seemed to me he’d attracted enough attention to himself that there should be a way under the current system to keep firearms away from him.” (The FBI acknowledged Friday that “protocols were not followed” when the bureau was tipped on the shooter in January.)

Barton also said he supported “more funding” for counseling and mental-illness facilities.

His experience has added a new dimension of empathy, too, in the fallout of a mass shooting, he said. He drew parallels between the Parkland massacre and what he had seen and felt on that June day. “The students and teachers in that school—they surely felt the same way as my son and I did,” he said. He paused for a few moments. “You feel helpless, you don’t know what’s going on, you don’t know what to do. You just feel kind of paralyzed in a way. I’m told at the school they kept them locked down for over two hours. I can’t imagine that. They could hear the bullets and see their friends getting hit. Two hours, but it all happens so quickly.”

“‘Get out of the outfield,’ that’s what they were yelling that day. In the school it was probably ‘Get under the desk, shut the doors,’” he said. “It’s panicking and it’s paralyzing.”

In the wake of the Parkland massacre, Barton has been flooded with angry messages from constituents on social media. Some have told him that Wednesday’s blood is on his hands. But while he does not agree that a ban on AR-15s, say, would have saved the lives of those in Florida, it doesn’t mean that, as he put it, “Democrats have a monopoly on feelings for victims of gun violence.”

Barton talks to his son, now 12, every night he’s not with him on the phone. He’d just landed in Texas when we talked, and Jack was his next call. They still work through what happened that day, together, and especially on those days when the news reminds them, as it does too often, that they need to. “I’m sure he will have questions,” Barton said, “so, tonight, that’s what we’ll talk about, and I’ll do my best to answer them.”