Patricia Lim /KUT
UVALDE, Texas — The small community of Uvalde, Texas mourns one of the deadliest school shootings in United States history as the audience — and the national political spotlight — descends on the region.
Parents and their children begin to face the unthinkable – 21 people shot dead, including 19 students – during bereavement counseling at the local civic center.
Therapy dogs in red vests bounce outside as the shocked community begins the slow process of coming to terms with the trauma caused by the 18-year-old shooter. Food trucks stop to offer meals.
Councilors from other nearby communities are arriving to help, such as Iveth Pacheco, who works at a high school and drove about 85 miles from San Antonio to the small town surrounded by cow pastures and cultivated fields.
“We are here to be a presence for every family mourning this tragic loss,” she told NPR. “We’re listening. I don’t think there’s anything we can say to them other than to listen and be ready for whatever thought and emotion they bring.”
A close-knit community
It seems everyone in this town of about 15,000 people has a personal connection to the victims and the shooter.
Around the corner from the scene of the shooting at Robb Elementary School, Sarah Zapata, who works for the local justice system, plays with her granddaughters.
“It’s sad for all the families, because we all know each other. Everybody knows everybody,” she told NPR as the kids ran around the yard in front of her house. “It’s unimaginable.”
The surrounding neighborhood is quiet, with tall trees and lots of dogs. In a nearby street, two horses walk on the asphalt as a man in a car leads them slowly.
Most doors and windows are closed the day after the shooting, as crowds of reporters stand outside the school. ATF agents knock on the doors of nearby houses to tell neighbors about what they may have seen the day before. Law enforcement officers patrol the area, some wearing large cowboy hats.
“We all went to Robb. My kids all went to Robb,” Zapata said. “You really never think that’s going to happen in a place like this.”
It’s like everyone knows the victims, and the shooter
Zapata’s children are between 17 and 24 years old, and one of them has known the suspect since elementary school.
“He just said he was always a different kid, just one of those kids that you know is different. Not with the crowd, I guess,” she said.
Nearby at Uvalde High School, Ariana Diaz and Jaime Cruz expected to graduate this week but now the ceremony is in the air and they say it’s far from their minds.
“We’re just trying to make sure our community is together,” Cruz said.
They said they had known the shooter all their lives. Salvador Ramos reportedly dropped out of this high school.
“We weren’t friends with him but we knew him,” Diaz told NPR. “It’s crazy, every time he gave up, we didn’t know where he was going. I know he was in a dark place, but I don’t know what happened.”
She said the tragedy affected almost everyone she knows.
“A lot of our classmates and friends have lost siblings, cousins, mothers,” Diaz said. “It hurts so much to watch them. It hurts for our community and it hurts for these families in particular, that they have to go through this kind of pain.”
The high school students came to attend a press conference by Republican Texas Governor Greg Abbott and they want to see tougher gun laws imposed.
“We really need to start raising awareness and implementing better gun control,” Diaz added.
The National Gun Policy Debate Takes Center Stage
Texas Governor Greg Abbott described the tragedy as a mental illness issue, not one caused by the state’s permissive gun laws.
He also said the shooter had no known mental health issues when he shot his grandmother in the face, crashed her car, then fired an AR-15 at the local elementary school . Authorities say he legally bought the gun shortly after he turned 18and birthday.
“We have a mental health issue in this community,” Abbott said, relaying what he described as the opinion of the local sheriff and mayor.
The auditorium erupted minutes later when Beto O’Rourke, who is Abbott’s Democratic challenger in the gubernatorial race, stood up and approached the stage.
Officials on stage yelled at him to stand down, with some appearing furious at his presence. O’Rourke said it was high time for concrete action to stop gun violence.
Patricia Lim /KUT
“The next shootout is right now, and you’re not doing anything,” O’Rourke said. “It’s totally predictable when you choose to repeat that.”
“Sir, you are out of place!” shouted Texas Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick.
O’Rourke was quickly removed from the auditorium by law enforcement and continued to speak to reporters outside. “We are 50and in the country when it comes to access to mental health care,” he said.
For O’Rourke, the main problem is gun control: “You want a solution? Stop selling AR-15s in the state of Texas,” he said, while also calling for gun control measures such as universal background checks, red flag laws and safe storage laws.
“It’s insane that we’re allowing an 18-year-old to come in and buy an AR-15,” O’Rourke added. “What did we think he was going to do with it?”