On Saturday, a gunman opened fire inside a Walmart in El Paso, Texas, killing at least twenty people and wounding dozens more. The suspect, who is twenty-one and was taken into police custody, is believed to be the author of a manifesto that was posted online just before the shooting and which railed against Hispanic immigrants. The Walmart was near a shopping center called Cielo Vista that is known as a visiting place for Mexican tourists. The murders are now being investigated as domestic terrorism. Less than twenty hours later, another shooting took place, in Dayton, Ohio, outside a crowded bar; the shooter, who was also in his twenties, killed nine people and wounded at least three times that many before being killed by law enforcement.
To discuss gun violence and the pain being felt in El Paso, I spoke by phone, on Sunday afternoon, with Representative Veronica Escobar, a first-term Democrat who represents El Paso, including the area where the shooting occurred. She recently made headlines for speaking out against the President’s immigration policies. During our conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity, we discussed how an elected official responds to tragedy, her frustration with Republican politicians, and the disturbing irony of violence being visited upon a border community by an anti-immigration extremist.
You were at a constituent meeting when you got the news, correct? What exactly happened?
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We were having a town-hall meeting, actually on the other side of town, and we were deep into the question-and-answer portion of the meeting. Constituents were lining up to ask their questions, and I noticed a staffer of mine walk up and she approached me, and I will tell you I was alarmed. I knew something was wrong. My first thought, because I have received death threats recently, was, Oh, no, did one of those individuals who has threatened me show up here?
Past New Yorker coverage of mass shootings and the battle over gun control.
So she walked up and she said, “Congresswoman, there is a live shooter at Cielo Vista, and we have been asked to end the meeting and make sure everyone gets out and goes home.” And so we made the announcement, and when we were walking out I kept asking, “But, if it’s across town, then why did we have to end it so abruptly?” That was weird. But then she explained that it was a pretty significant shooting, and they needed all law enforcement available. All hands on deck. And we have law enforcement at our town-hall meetings because of the threats that we’ve received. So it just became clear that this was a much more serious live-shooter incident than what I had originally imagined, which I thought, Oh, hopefully it was someone who walked up with a gun and was tackled by the cops and everybody is safe. But, as the day unfolded, the news kept getting worse.
Are these threats you have been getting related to immigration stuff?
Can you say more about them?
I would prefer not to. But they were death threats.
What have your last twenty-four hours been like? Can you explain what it’s like to be a congresswoman when something like this happens in your district?
Unfortunately, it is becoming all too common in our country for members of Congress and elected and community leaders to have to deal with this. But there is this incredibly urgent feeling to help in some way, to do something, to act in some way, and I obviously don’t just feel that way because I am a member of Congress. I feel that way because I am an El Pasoan, and that is what El Pasoans do. And that is why El Pasoans have lined up to donate blood, they have cooked meals and dropped off meals at the family reunification center. El Pasoans have really come through in a beautiful way.
But you are torn. I wanted to visit with families in the hospital, but even then I am torn, because I want to respect their privacy and I know these moments are very difficult and painful. And I know what it is like to have a loved one in the hospital fighting for their life, and I don’t know that I would care to see an elected official in that moment. So I have felt very torn about things like that.
How have you resolved that? Have you been doing it?
So I did, yeah. The way that I resolved it was that we asked the [hospital’s] C.E.O. to find out which families would be willing, so I wasn’t just knocking on a door and walking in. Those visits have been very . . . [pause] I will tell you, Isaac, that the trauma these individuals have lived through is indescribable. I spoke to two mothers who were out in front of the Walmart because they were having a fund-raiser for their daughters’ soccer team, and on one side of the entrance was some of the adults, and on the other side of the entrance were their children with other adults. And, for these two moms, when the shooter arrived, the first thing they felt was incredible desperation to know whether their children were alive. I spoke to a truck driver who got the call from his wife during the shooting. Can you imagine being on the other side of that telephone and your wife is sobbing and crying and saying, “I don’t know where our daughter is. I don’t know if she is safe.” This is what is going to be really challenging for us as a community. We are going to be living with a tremendous amount of mental and emotional trauma.
Have you spoken with either the President or Greg Abbott, the very pro-gun governor of your state?
I have not spoken with the President and frankly don’t care to. I was at a press conference [on Saturday] where the governor was in attendance.
Anything to add about your experience with the governor?
One of the questions asked at the end of the presser was asked by a journalist who said that this is becoming all too common: a white man with a manifesto who then commits these heinous acts of violence. “What do you say to that?” And Abbott said, “Well, it is clear that he is mentally ill.” And I will tell you—that just sent me over the edge, for a number of reasons. No. 1, because it is such a dismissive talking point that is a distraction and is meant to take our focus away from gun violence and from the racism and hatred that has become so pervasive, especially in the last couple of years, in our country.
People don’t want to “politicize” tragedy—that’s the word we use. But, at the same time, if we are going to solve this problem it is through politics. How do you balance that as a politician?
Oh, yeah, believe me, I have already been widely criticized for offering a rebuttal to the governor’s comment, when I said that we need to recognize this for what it is, which is hate and bigotry, and that this sounds a lot like domestic terrorism. And so immediately, as social media does, it goes on the attack, but I will tell you, Isaac, unless we talk about solutions, it becomes too easy for time to pass and America to move on. And I think that is what people who are uninterested in solutions would prefer. We can console the community, we can bring people together, we can care for one another, while at the same time talking about the real problems that caused this epidemic. I don’t understand the mind-set that you can’t talk about what happened because somehow it is disrespectful to the victims. I think what is disrespectful to the victims is to ignore why it happened. There are going to be twenty funerals in this community. We absolutely have to talk about why.
The President, over the past several months, has very clearly tried to say El Paso is a dangerous place—presenting it as much more violent than it is. And now we have this disturbing irony in which El Paso was visited by horrible violence, in part because of the issue of immigration, just not in the way the President meant. Have you thought about that irony?
I have. That’s exactly what I said to members of my team. This is a very tragic irony. There is an obsession about the border and a boogeyman that doesn’t really exist. This shooter who came in to commit this massacre came in from the outside. He came into a tranquil, safe, beautiful border community that cares for the stranger, that cares for the vulnerable, that cares for the least among us—and he came here to do us harm. He took twenty lives, he hurt countless families, he has definitely caused us tremendous pain, but he will not change us, he will not kill our spirits, and we are going to continue to be the loving community that we always have been.