Gun violence has changed America

Gun Rights

America will change this time.

That was my thought on May 25, as I walked on South Grove Street near Robb Elementary School. A woman’s wail echoed from a house on the next street over. Her cries rose above the hum of the news trucks and the conversations of those gathered behind the barricades. They flew past the state troopers posted at the intersections and into the harsh light of the Texas sky.

Her cries, like the calls for change, grow louder after each new atrocity, but they have yet to be loud enough to prompt substantive changes to prevent future carnage.

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Like many, I was convinced the nation would unite to fix gun violence after Newtown. And I held that conviction after Orlando, Parkland, Las Vegas and other massacres. That conviction felt strong in Uvalde, a small border town that landed on Texas’ list of mass shootings after Sutherland Springs, Santa Fe, El Paso and before Allen and Cleveland.

The wounds from these atrocities go beyond the physical, mental and spiritual. They pierce our society in ways that will take years to understand. They alter faith in systems, perceptions of safety and trust in politicians. They devastate families and communities. The impacts will echo for generations.

The bullets killed Nevaeh, Jackie, Makenna, Jose, Ellie, Uzi, Amerie Jo, Xavier, Jayce, Tess, Maranda, Annabell, Lexi, Layla, Jailah, Rojelio, Eliahna, Alithia, Maite, Irma and Eva.

The doctors then talked about the.223 rounds’ high velocity and impact. The devastation of large entry and exit wounds, especially on tiny bodies. They used words like pulverize, open chest, decapitate, blown up, war wounds. Some children, they said, could only be recognized by their clothing.

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The bullets have also torn apart families. Irma’s husband, Joe, died of a broken heart two days after the massacre.

Some of the wounded are still enduring surgeries and treatment. Their lives will never be the same.

The day will haunt many students, teachers, staff, first responders and families. The trauma will reverberate across generations. The pain flows beyond the school’s boundaries, into this town of about 15,000 people and beyond to the state, nation and world.

In the immediate aftermath, politicians called for better mental health care, but little has changed in Texas. The state was ranked 51 for access to mental health care in 2022, and remains dead last.

The bullets also shattered the community’s trust in its leaders and police force.

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The wounded and the dead remained trapped in the classroom for 77 minutes before a team breached and killed the gunman. During that time, 376 law enforcement officers from 23 agencies — including 91 state troopers — rushed to the campus.

An 18-year-old with an AR-style rifle stymied the police response, along with unclear command and control, confusion, poor leadership, bad communications and a lack of interagency training. The Texas House of Representatives’ report describes the “failure of any officers to assume and exercise incident command” as “a major error in the law enforcement response.”

In the weeks and months that followed, several officers and school district officials were fired or stepped down. The slow-moving investigations and bureaucracy deepened pain.

The bullets led to words that have inflicted untold damage. At a press conference the day after the shooting, the governor said, “It could have been worse.”

The state’s director of public safety repeated falsehoods, inaccuracies and shifted blame away from his agency.

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Especially haunting is the disclaimer that came with the release of surveillance footage: “The sound of children screaming has been removed.”

And the bullets led to ever-present reminders around the town.

Robb Elementary, now permanently closed and slated for demolition, remains cloaked in a chain-link fence covered with black material. The school remains a crime scene, and state troopers patrol the grounds 24 hours a day.

The fencing veils the signs from the time before May 24: “Welcome! Bienvenidos! We’re glad you’re here,” and “Robb Elementary, Together we rise.” The digital screen that once flashed announcements sits darkened atop a large “U” emblazoned with the school mascot and an outline of Texas.

At the corner of Geraldine Street and Old Carrizo Road, the piles of flowers and offerings outside Robb are gone, but a makeshift memorial of low white crosses remains. Hundreds of rosaries hang from a large wooden cross nearby.

Wooden crosses outside Robb Elementary School in January. The toll of violence can be felt across Uvalde, Texas and the nation.

Wooden crosses outside Robb Elementary School in January. The toll of violence can be felt across Uvalde, Texas and the nation.

Sam Owens, San Antonio Express-News / Staff photographer

About a mile from the school, more crosses and mementos surround the fountain in the plaza across from the courthouse. Businesses and homes display “Uvalde Strong” or “Pray for Uvalde” signs. A few houses near Robb have signs with crossed-out rifles. A decal on a white SUV’s rear window read, “Uvalde Shooting Survivor.”

Around downtown, murals, honoring each of those killed, adorn the sides of buildings. The colors and renderings of young lives are beautiful, but they are also scars; bright bandages over wounds that will never heal.

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Each time bullets fly, they injure everyone’s security and freedom.

At the same time, they demonstrate the archaic, broken ways of thinking about guns and the nation’s relationship with them. The cumulative trauma of gun violence will one day lead to meaningful reforms, but how many more must die?

The Uvalde families proved that again by pushing Texas lawmakers to move a bill to raise the purchase age of assault rifles to 21 out of committee, a small step in an agonizing and frustrating legislative process. The bill stalled, but it still represents a small victory in a larger battle. The bravery of the families who have lost loved ones to gun violence stands in contrast to those lawmakers who refuse to discuss gun safety or move the legislation forward.

Ernest Hemingway wrote, “The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places. But those that will not break it kills. It kills the very good and the very gentle and the very brave impartially.”

The world has already killed many good, gentle and brave people in Uvalde. The world has broken their families and their town. We must listen to their pleas for change in order to strengthen the broken places.

Earlier this month, the day after the May 6 Allen massacre, I stood near the fountain in Uvalde’s Town Square. Under the large trees nearby, a father played catch with two boys. Their mother sat silently on one of the benches. The man left the boys and walked to the crosses near the fountain. He righted some flowers toppled by the wind and straightened a sign that had gone crooked.

He joined his wife on the bench. Neither spoke. The boys threw the ball and ran across the grass. They laughed and smiled.

One day, America will change.

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