Viewpoints

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott jokes about shooting reporters. Why does he think that’s funny?

AP

AUSTIN, Texas – There’s nothing funny about gun violence, threatened or otherwise. Ditto for physical violence.

And – and I’m getting close to home here – there’s nothing funny about threatened gun or physical violence against members of my esteemed and respected-by-all craft.

Look, I know Gov. Greg Abbott was joking Friday at a South Austin shooting range when, showing off a target that displayed his pistol prowess, he said, “I’m going to carry this around in case I see any reporters.”

Good one. Or not.

The quip came at a signing ceremony for the recently approved measure reducing the fee for a handgun license.

First, you need to understand the odd relationship between journalists and the subjects/targets of our journalism. We often get to know each other in a professional relationship that sometimes allows some back and forth that might seem off-key to others.

I didn’t take it personally back in 2006 when, at a news conference, then-President George W. Bush very publicly made fun of my seersucker suit. Clothing is a fair subject for humor. Gun violence isn’t, probably never was and especially isn’t now. Abbott knows that and knew it when he offered the joke.

The intended humor is obvious, especially in light of its target. But it was particularly ill-timed and ill-advised in the wake of this week’s body slam of a journalist by now-U.S. Rep.-elect Greg Gianforte of Montana who took umbrage and resorted to quick-temper violence when a reporter had the audacity to ask him a question about health care reform, the hottest button issue in D.C. these days (other than anything having to do with our nontraditional president who says journalists are enemies of the people).

Abbott’s Friday quip brought swift and certain rebuke from folks from whom you’d expect swift and certain rebuke, including journalists and gun-control advocates who understandably have hair triggers about such things.

“This isn’t funny; this is a threat, and it is dangerous,” tweeted Shannon Watts, founder of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America. “These words from a public official should disgust us all.”

“Gun violence is not a joke,” Watts said in another tweet.

In yet another, she put it all in the proper context of the odd times in which we live: “Trump said he could shoot voters on 5th Ave.; Gianforte assaulted a reporter; now Greg Abbott jokes about shooting reporters.”

And Dan Gross, president of the Brady Campaign, which advocates against gun violence, called the joke “dangerous and out of line.”

“Words matter,” Gross said.

Because I know (hope?) Abbott knows better about such remarks, I’m dialing back my outrage about this a bit. (That also could be because I’ve been known to lob an occasional remark I should have known better about. Only the perfect among us hasn’t.)

But Abbott and all politicians and elected officials – especially those advocating for gun ownership rights, a concept I support – ought to treat their mouth like they treat their guns. And that means it ought to have a safety on it to prevent it from going off unwisely.

Our governor knows that. All of us – those who favor gun control and those who oppose it – understand the need for mouth control.

What should we think of an elected official’s joke about gun violence against journalists? The same as we would think about a journalist’s joke about gun violence against an elected official.

We can argue and litigate about the rights granted us in the First and Second Amendments. But we all agree those rights come with responsibilities concerning prudent use.

Ken Herman is a columnist for the Austin American-Statesman. kherman@statesman.com.

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