Editorial Roundup: Texas

Houston Chronicle. Oct. 31, 2021.

Editorial: Texas needs to watch, learn from the deadly Alec Baldwin shooting on film set

Vexing questions remain about what actually happened Oct. 21 on the set of a movie being made near Santa Fe, N.M., when an antique Colt .45 discharged as it was being used as a prop by actor Alec Baldwin during rehearsal of a scene. A projectile from the revolver struck and killed Halyna Hutchins, director of photography on the movie, a Western called “Rust.” Joel Souza, the director, was standing beside Hutchins and was injured.

The tragic incident prompted understandable anguish on the part of all who knew the 42-year-old Hutchins, a highly regarded cinematographer, as well as a wife and mother. Ongoing police investigations are asking how a gun that was declared “cold” — that is, safe to fire — as it was handed to Baldwin could have killed someone.

What happened on a New Mexico movie set also should prompt serious soul-searching far beyond the movie industry. We have in mind those among us who don’t take firearms seriously enough. Texas elected officials, careless in their Second Amendment convictions and craven in their kowtowing to gun-rights zealots, come to mind immediately.

Similar accidents on movie sets have happened before, although they are rare, thanks in large part to strict safety rules. A 2016 Associated Press investigation found that at least 43 people had died on sets in the U.S., going back to 1990; more than 150 had suffered serious injuries. A tiny percentage of those deaths were specifically attributed to firearms being used as props, even though guns are integral to countless movies.

The gun death most often remembered is that of 28-year-old Brandon Lee, son of the late martial arts star Bruce Lee. The younger Lee died in 1993 while filming a scene for the movie “The Crow” after being hit by a .44-caliber slug fired from a prop gun supposed to have been filled only with blank rounds.

Lee’s death was the last recorded accidental death by a gun that was being used as a prop on a movie set. Nearly a decade prior, actor Jon-Erik Hexum was killed on the set of the TV series “Cover Up.” He shot himself in the head while playing Russian roulette with a gun loaded with blanks, which can still be deadly at very close range.

In large part because of those two deaths, film makers today are expected to rigidly adhere to page after page of detailed regulations regarding firearms on set. Their bible, so to speak, is “Safety Bulletin” No. 1, posted anytime a set will involve the use of firearms and compiled and distributed by the Industry-Wide Labor-Management Safety Committee.

In the very first paragraph the document admonishes: “BLANKS CAN KILL. TREAT ALL FIREARMS AS THOUGH THEY ARE LOADED. ‘LIVE AMMUNITION’ IS NEVER TO BE USED NOR BROUGHT ONTO ANY STUDIO LOT OR STAGE.”

The bulletin goes on to lay out comprehensive instructions for firearms protocol. The general rules include never pointing a firearm at anyone; never placing your finger on the trigger until you’re ready to shoot; knowing where and what your intended target is; no horseplay with any firearms; never discharging a weapon when the barrel is clogged; and never laying down a firearm or leaving it unattended. Additional regulations speak to movie-production specifics.

Those basic instructions, of course, are well-established rules familiar to all who deal with firearms regularly, from law enforcement officers to the military. It includes many members of the National Rifle Association, particularly those members who recall when their organization was dedicated primarily to shooting safety and basic firearms instruction, rather than to high-pressure lobbying and the wholly invented notion of Second Amendment absolutism that it has championed of late. Mistakes happen, rules are broken and people get careless, but those who know guns best are well aware that rules, regulations and strict protocols save lives.

While cops, soldiers, NRA firearms instructors and responsible gun owners — not to mention Hollywood filmmakers — are usually dead serious about firearms, Texas lawmakers are not. They’re irresponsible “huckleberries” when it comes to gun sense.

A responsible elected official would not have supported legislation in the previously concluded session that makes it almost as easy for an adult Texan to walk into a sporting-goods store and purchase a gun as it is to buy a fishing rod or a camping tent.

Make your choice, put down your credit card and pass a perfunctory background check, and you’re not only a gun owner but fully authorized to carry it with you just about anywhere you want to go. No licensing needed, no training in laws and safety, no demonstrated proficiency in shooting. Just grab that gun and go.

Go to church with it on your hip or in your purse; go to Applebee’s and tuck into the Sizzlin’ Caramel Apple Blondie armed; sit in the stands locked and loaded at Little League games; pray in a pew at church with a pistol on your hip. You’ll never know when and where you’ll have to whip it out and use it, regardless of your skill level or good judgment.

No wonder so many Texas police chiefs opposed the so-called permitless-carry legislation that Gov. Greg Abbott signed in June.

Firearms are ubiquitous on movie sets; deaths and injuries are rare. Firearms are ubiquitous in American society, particularly in Texas and the South; deaths and injuries are anything but rare.

In 2020, gun violence killed nearly 20,000 Americans, the highest total in two decades, according to data from the Gun Violence Archive. An additional 24,000 people in this country used a gun to kill themselves. Those figures combined are 25 times higher than any other developed nation.

And the state with the highest number of gun deaths in 2020, in 2019, and many years before that? That would be Texas, Our Texas, with 3,683 last year.

Mortality data from 2019, the most recent year for which the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has reported, shows that even on a per-capita basis, gunshots kill more Texans each year than in America’s other largest states, including California, Pennsylvania, Illinois and New York, where fewer than 900 accidental gun deaths took place. Among the six biggest states, only Florida’s gun death rate matched our own.

In the wake of the tragic New Mexico incident, the movie industry is already considering even stricter rules, including potentially banning real guns on sets, and relying on computer-generated images instead. A senior California lawmaker has already filed a bill that would ban the use of live ammunition, and guns capable of firing it, from sets.

Given Texas’ terrible track record of deadly shootings, including some of the nation’s worst mass shootings, a Texas lawmaker truly committed to the public’s safety would be looking for solutions, too. Worthy ideas abound: investment in community violence interruption programs, prohibiting individuals convicted of domestic violence crimes from possessing firearms, pushing for secure storage of guns at home, funding gun-violence research, to name a few.

If only ideas and common sense were enough. They aren’t though, not without political courage.

We live in Texas, of course, where gun laws are more relaxed than they were in the real Wild West of Dodge City, Tombstone and Old Tascosa. Until we begin electing lawmakers serious about gun safety and violence prevention, thousands of dead Texans will continue to be collateral damage in our faux Wild West. To the gun lobby and those irresponsible officials who profess their fealty to it, lax gun laws are more important than life itself.

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Amarillo Globe-News. Oct. 30, 2021.

Editorial: Request for schools’ book information could be troubling

In a development that could make both public education and free speech advocates more than a little nervous, a member of the Texas House of Representatives has asked some state school districts for information about the types of books they have.

Earlier this week, Rep. Matt Krause, R-Fort Worth, said he is investigating Texas school district content. Krause is chairman of the House Committee on General Investigating and notified the Texas Education Agency of this intent. The story originally was reported by the Texas Tribune.

It is also worth pointing out that Krause is among a crowded field of candidates looking to unseat Ken Paxton as the state’s attorney general. Critics suggest the inquiry is merely a means for Krause to raise his statewide profile among voters.

The titles on school library book shelves have from time to time sparked controversy, but it can be dangerous when one group tries to monitor or determine what others might have access to.

Krause has sent the districts, which have not been identified, a list of some 850 book titles. He wants to know if they have these books, how many copies of each they have and how much they’ve spent to obtain them, per the Tribune’s account.

The books overwhelmingly have to do with issues of race and sexuality with most having been produced within the past two decades. So far, the representative has declined to comment on the inquiry or how the books were selected for the list. Likewise, the TEA and most members of Krause’s committee have not commented publicly.

The letter appears to be a direct result of House Bill 3979, a recently passed state law meant to limit how race-related topics are taught in public secondary schools, according to the Tribune story. The schools have only a few weeks to gather material and respond to Krause’s request.

It is not clear what might happen to districts that have books on the list or how any information generated from the inquiry will be used. There are no overtures within the letter that any of the books will be removed from the schools.

It is troubling, though, when a member of the legislature seeks information about specific school districts and the books those schools might possess. The inquiry, which seemed to catch other committee members by surprise, should raise concern on several levels. It is a slippery slope. What books will be on the next list? Who determines what the lists look like?

Books are a fundamental way of increasing one’s knowledge and can also offer reasoning behind viewpoints, popular and unpopular, for consideration. They are part of a lifelong educational process. They not only provide information, but they also challenge readers to engage previously unconsidered points of view thoughtfully. In other words, they contribute mightily to an educated populace.

A secondary consideration is the amount of work this request creates for public school personnel. Chasing down how many copies of hundreds of titles and the costs associated with each translates to a lot of legwork for districts, most of which are already facing staffing and resource challenges as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. The letter specifies 850 books, but also includes broad language about other titles that fall within a variety of related categories.

“This is an obvious attack on diversity and an attempt to score political points at the expense of our children’s education,” Ovidia Molina, president of the Texas State Teachers Association, said in the Tribune story.

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Dallas Morning News. Oct. 28, 2021.

Editorial: Don’t hold your breath for Cornyn infrastructure bill to get a House vote

Most of what we hear about Washington these days is how dysfunctional it is, and the reputation is well earned. We are in an era when political power and absolutist ideology have become far more important to prominent politicians than actually passing legislation that might prove helpful to the American people.

But there is a more nuanced side to the story. Important things still happen in Washington, and many members of Congress actually do want to get something done for their country rather than their political party.

Among those pieces of legislation is a little noticed bill that Sen. John Cornyn and a Democratic colleague introduced recently that soared through the body on unanimous consent. The bill would give states much more flexibility in how to spend funds the federal government provided under the CARES Act and the American Rescue Plan.

Billions of dollars went unused, as states didn’t have enough places to put money that was intended for pandemic relief.

Under the bill Cornyn co-sponsored with Sen. Alex Padilla, D-Calif., eligible governmental entities could spend the greater of $10 million or 30% of their unspent relief funding on infrastructure, disaster relief, housing, community development and other matters.

In Texas, that amounts to $9.6 billion in funds that could be redirected to projects that can lift up communities. In California, it’s $14.5 billion.

Across the country, tens of billions of dollars that might be misdirected toward unnecessary spending on anything the states can label as COVID-19 relief could instead be spent on bridges, roads, carbon reduction programs and a host of other things the nation needs.

We have supported the Biden administration’s plan to spend more than $1 trillion on restoring American infrastructure, even as we have raised concerns about the president’s much larger and nebulous spending package.

As things stand, the infrastructure bill, which has bipartisan support, is bogged down with progressives’ demand that it’s all or nothing.

We hope that Cornyn’s more modest, common-sense bill doesn’t fall victim to the same fate. There is no state in the union that couldn’t put some of the COVID-19 relief money to better use now. Every senator, Republican or Democrat, recognizes that. Will the House have the sense to let good legislation happen?

We can’t say we are optimistic it will happen. We can only say it needs to happen.

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Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Oct. 29, 2021.

Editorial: Firing Arlington cop in shooting death isn’t enough. Why he must face criminal charges

Arlington Police Chief Al Jones acted swiftly when one of his officers unnecessarily used deadly force and killed a man who evaded arrest and then pointed his vehicle at an officer.

Jones fired Officer Robert Phillips, a seven-year veteran of the force, declaring that the body- and dashboard-camera videos clearly showed a violation of department policy.

It was the right call, but we still need answers about the interaction with Jesse Fischer of Addison. Phillips should face criminal charges.

Jones avoided drawing out the department’s administrative decision, for which he deserves credit. Some will call the decision rash, but Jones summed it up clearly: “The facts as we know them today are not going to change. They’re not going to change today, they’re not going to change tomorrow, they’re not going to change six months from now.”

An Arlington police spokesman says a criminal investigation is ongoing. The case will be sent to Tarrant County District Attorney Sharen Wilson, whose office will probably present it to a grand jury.

It takes a lot to charge and prosecute a police officer, and it should. Their jobs are not easy, and their lives are constantly on the line. Breaking down their actions frame by frame sometimes distorts situations in which they must use split-second judgment.

And an approaching vehicle can be a true threat. Officers have been hurt and killed when escaping suspects hit the gas with disregard for life.

After officers pulled Fischer over and he drove away, police chased him into a cul-de-sac near South Collins Street. Phillips’ body-cam video shows he began firing almost as soon as he emerged from his vehicle. As Jones noted, he could have gotten back in his car or gone behind it. Officers could have blocked the cul-de-sac and waited Fischer out.

Fischer was initially approached Wednesday when a caller reported seeing Fischer slumped over in his vehicle stopped in the middle of Pioneer Parkway. An officer asked him to open the door so emergency responders could examine him, the released footage shows, but he restarted his Jeep and pulled away.

Fischer had ample opportunity to surrender. He could have opened the car door to begin with or given up when police pulled him over. He made bad decisions to continue driving and, once in the cul-de-sac, to try to escape. The best way of minimizing the chance of harm in such a situation is to comply with every order an officer gives.

None of that, of course, justifies the shooting.

It seems likely that Fischer was impaired in some way, but Susan McClelland, an attorney for his family, took issue with initial reports that he was intoxicated and noted that blood work hasn’t been finished. She said his parents believe that Fischer may have experienced a low blood sugar issue.

“He was prone to having sugar crises,” said McClelland, a senior attorney at Jensen & Jensen in Arlington.

Fischer’s parents told her that he had not shown signs of aggression and that his behavior “was characteristic in that he would want to get away instead of be confrontational.

She added: “The family is not ready to say, ‘Here’s the answer to this.’ Judgment needs to be withheld on what’s going on.”

It’s odd that this police killing hasn’t gotten the attention devoted to so many other bad shootings. It’s emblematic of many of the issues under the microscope, especially dealing with suspects in distress and the need for de-escalation tactics. A more thorough airing would benefit us all.

Fischer’s parents are “not quite understanding why this sort of force was used,” McClelland said.

Arlington police, the DA’s office and the grand jury need time to do their work. But we shouldn’t let this case slip quietly from the radar, especially if it offers lessons to avoid future tragedies.

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Victoria Advocate. Oct. 27, 2021.

Editorial: LaVaca BBQ makes Texas Monthly’s list of Best 50 BBQ Joints

For four years, barbecue enthusiasts have eagerly awaited Texas Monthly’s next list of the state’s Best 50 BBQ Joints. During the spring and summer, the magazine deployed 32 editorial staffers and three freelancers to weigh in on barbecue served at 411 barbecue joints across our vast 268,596-square-mile state. We are happy to report that, according to the authority on all things Texan, Crossroads residents who keep tabs on good sources of barbecue are in luck.

One of the Best 50 BBQ Joints selected by the magazine’s experienced tasters fires up its pits from before dawn until after dusk six days a week in Port Lavaca. Lupe and Christine Nevarez founded LaVaca BBQ in the quaint coastal town in 2019. Their daughter, Kelli Nevarez, who left her post as a first-grade teacher at an elementary school, puts her chops — earned competing with family in barbecue competitions throughout the years — to good use as resident pitmaster.

In April 2021, LaVaca BBQ added a location in Bay City, which serves barbecue on Saturdays and caters daily. With its newfound fame among barbecue’s best, the family establishment intends to expand to a third location in Victoria in the old Tire King at the intersection of North Navarro and East Red River streets next year.

The writer for the Texas magazine noted LaVaca BBQ’s “tender brisket, excellent house-made sausage and massive pork spareribs covered in a house-made glaze that contains Big Red syrup.” Other mouth-watering options mentioned in the write-up include “masa filled with brisket and pulled pork wrapped in a butcher-paper ‘husk’ and smoked until firm,” and the “smoked pork belly tacos served on blue corn tortillas.”

The in-house made sausage links come in two varieties — Serrano and Cheese, and Central Texas. Dino Beef Ribs are available only on Saturdays, and the Pork Belly Burnt Ends are served only on Saturdays and Sundays. If that’s not enough to keep customers coming back for more, the sides include jalapeno cream corn, potato salad, mango habanero coleslaw, brisket beans, BBQ gumbo and mac belly.

To feed the Crossroads’ fire, Texas Monthly’s honorable mention list also includes a couple of establishments that serve up brisket in our collective backyard. Kolacny’s Bar-B-Q House keeps those in Hallettsville well-fed while Coastal Que BBQ & More satisfies appetites in Matagorda.

And don’t forget the local joints that have made the magazine’s Best 50 list before. McMillan’s Bar-B-Q in Fannin and Mumphord’s Place BBQ in Victoria have spent time in the spotlight in past years for their savory servings of barbecue.

While those who live in Port Lavaca are certainly the envy of all in our area who appreciate tasty barbecue, the good news is that LaVaca BBQ plans to open another location in Victoria.

In the meantime, the barbecue joint is not too far from several communities — and road trips are fun. We encourage everyone to take full advantage of our most recent claim to barbecue fame.

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