Houston Police Chief: 'There Are Too Many Decisions Being Made for Political Theater'

In an exclusive new interview, the Texas lawman sounds off on life after the Santa Fe shooting

Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo, center, and Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner, far right, join demonstrators during a "March for Our Lives" protest on March 24th. Credit: David J. Phillip/AP

In response to Friday’s shooting that left 10 dead at Santa Fe High School, Texas Governor Greg Abbott on Monday announced he would hold a series of roundtable discussions on gun violence. The first of the series – which will feature a combination of legislators, law enforcement officials, educators and other experts – was held Tuesday at the Capitol in Austin. Two more are scheduled for Wednesday and Thursday. "Well, by now we know what the problem is," Abbott said prior to Tuesday’s session. "The problem is that innocent people are being shot, and that must be stopped."

The problem extends beyond the obvious for Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo and the city’s mayor, Sylvester Turner, who have advocated for responsible guns laws in Texas. In March, both city leaders participated in Houston's March For Our Lives rally, where Turner announced the creation of a Commission to End Gun Violence. Neither will be present at any of Abbott’s roundtable discussions. "I can tell you I’m not part of the roundtable," Acevedo told Rolling Stone by phone. "My phone hasn’t rang for the roundtable. The mayor’s hasn’t rang, either. We’re not part of that."

The night of the shooting, Acevedo wrote on Facebook that he had "hit rock bottom" regarding guns, while pleading with elected officials to take action. "I have never accepted the status-quo in anything I do and I’ve never accepted defeat," he wrote. "And I won’t do it now. I will continue to speak up and will stand up for what my heart and my God commands me to do, and I assure you he hasn’t instructed me to believe that gun-rights are bestowed by him."

The message made national headlines, putting the police chief in the crosshairs of the NRA. He has been slandered repeatedly by the gun rights group in the days since the post went viral. He also hasn't taken the attacks quietly, firing off several tweets in response to a series of defamatory segments aired on NRATV. On Tuesday, he threatened to take legal action against the group.

Greg Abbott spoke at the NRA’s national convention earlier this month in Dallas, and has received an "A" rating from the gun rights group. Since becoming governor in 2015, he has signed an open-cary law as well as a campus conceal-carry law that allows people over the age of 21 to carry handguns on public university campuses. "The answer to gun violence is not to take guns away, the answer is to strengthen the second amendment rights of law-abiding citizens," Abbott said to NRA supporters in Dallas. “The problem is not guns, it’s hearts without God."

Though the state's officials may be staunchly pro-gun, Acevedo doesn't believe fighting for reform is a zero-sum game. After Abbott’s open-carry law made its way through the legislature in 2015, a joint committee agreed to an amendment that would prohibit police officers from asking for the permit of anyone open-carrying a handgun. This would have essentially been a loophole to allowing constitutional carry, which holds that all American citizens have the right to carry a handgun without restriction, regardless of their criminal history or mental health issues. Acevedo responded by gathering a number of local and statewide law enforcement organizations to fight the amendment, and together they were able to prevent it from passing.

"When we killed the backdoor constitutional carry, I remember Sylvester Turner, who was then a member of the legislature, speaking out about it and [other legislators] trying to be dismissive," recalls Acevedo. "They’re all about law and order and law enforcement, unless they don’t like what law enforcement has to say."

Acevedo, who took over as Houston's police chief in 2016 after holding the same title in Austin for nine years, is a results-driven pragmatist who laments the polarized nature of the gun debate, which explains why he's been so frustrated at the NRA's efforts to paint him as a gun-grabbing extremist. "We need to speak to the center," he says. "Americans are pragmatic. All of us have a responsibility – policy makers, law enforcement executives, educators and the media – to frame the discussion in a manner that speaks to the majority of Americans and does not evoke reactions by the fringe of the political spectrum. I think a lot of people are guilty of doing that."

Not unrelated is Acevedo's objection to the use of the phrase "gun control." When I used the term while asking a question about his history of advocating for reform, he abruptly cut me off, likening it to "sanctuary cities" in the way it is employed as a dog whistle by both the left and the right. "I've never talked about gun control," he says. "You're not going to believe this, but I actually believe in the second amendment. You know how you can protect the second amendment? By taking proactive measures that the majority of Americans support." Chief among these measures is a universal background check system "with real teeth in it" so that guns can stay in the hands of "law-abiding Americans of sound mind."

Absent the passage of meaningful gun reform, both Acevedo and Turner believe there is still plenty that can be done to help prevent future school shootings. On Friday, Turner suggested metal detectors as a possible deterrent. "These shootings have become a real modern-day challenge in suburbia," Acevedo says. "One thing we want to study is what we can take away from what they are doing in inner-city schools in Detroit and other places. There are schools where they do have metal detectors, and doors that are used to get out but not necessarily to get in. All those things are on the table. Again, it's time for action, not time for words."

Though Acevedo won't be attending any of Governor Abbott's roundtable sessions this week, he isn't short of suggestions as to how decision-makers in the state legislature should proceed in the wake of Friday's shooting. "I would say let's all bring in the subject matter experts," he says. "Policy makers shouldn't pay lip service to the subject matter experts; they should take the advice they provide. I would urge them to make their policy decisions based on that rather than what is best for primary election season. There are too many decisions being made for political theater."

As far as how he would plan to get through to a legislature that has yet to show any signs of willingness to consider gun regulation, Acevedo offers one word: persistence. "It's not an either/or proposition. It's how you can make it a better proposition," he says. "There's a way to get there if we just stop holding onto the extremes and start realizing that life is about give and take. Then we can find a solution to make these issues less problematic in our society."