Debate Over Guns Unfolds in Uvalde, a Rural Texas Town in Grief

UVALDE, Texas — Living in a rural Texas town renowned for white-tailed deer hunting, where rifles are a regular prize at school raffles, Desirae Garza never thought much about gun laws. That changed after her 10-year-old niece, Amerie Jo, was fatally shot inside Robb Elementary School.

“You can’t purchase a beer, and yet you can buy an AR-15,” Ms. Garza said of the 18-year-old gunman who the authorities say legally bought two semiautomatic rifles and hundreds of rounds of ammunition days before killing 19 children and two teachers. “It’s too easy.”

But inside another Uvalde home, Amerie Jo’s father, Alfred Garza III, had a sharply different view. In the wake of his daughter’s killing, he said he was considering buying a holster to strap on the handgun he now leaves in his home or truck.

“Carrying it on my person is not a bad idea after all this,” he said.

An anguished soul-searching over Texas’ gun culture and permissive gun laws is unfolding across the latest community to be shattered by a shooter’s rampage.

Uvalde, a largely Mexican American city of 15,200 near the U.S. southern border, is a far different place from Parkland, Fla., or Newtown, Conn., which became centers of grass-roots gun control activism in the aftermath of the school shootings there.

Gun ownership is threaded into life here in a county that has elected conservative Democrats and twice supported former President Donald J. Trump. Several relatives of victims count themselves among Texas’ more than one million gun owners. Some grew up hunting and shooting. Others say they own multiple guns for protection.

ImageA view of Oasis Outback, the store where officials say a gunman who killed 19 children and two teachers at Robb Elementary School purchased his weapons.Credit…Meridith Kohut for The New York Times

In Uvalde, the debate has unfolded not through protests and marches, as it did after Parkland, but in quieter discussions inside people’s living rooms and at vigils, in some cases exposing rifts within grieving families. The grandfather of one boy killed on Tuesday said he always keeps a gun under the seat of his truck to protect his family; the boy’s grandmother now wants to limit gun access.

From Opinion: The Texas School Shooting

Commentary from Times Opinion on the massacre at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas.

The Times editorial board: We Americans need to figure out how to keep one another alive and thriving. Right now, we’re failing at that primary responsibility.Amanda Gorman, poet: The youngest inaugural poet in U.S. history shares a new poem written after the tragedy in Uvalde.Nicholas Kristof, former Times Opinion columnist: Gun policy is complicated and politically vexing, and it won’t make everyone safe. But it could reduce gun deaths.Kara Swisher: Gov. Greg Abbott of Texas has sought to shift accountability onto social media. But more of the blame lies at the feet of some politicians.

Gov. Greg Abbott, who signed a law last year making Texas a “Second Amendment sanctuary” from federal gun laws, and other Republicans have dismissed calls for tightening access to guns in the wake of the Uvalde shooting. They have instead called for improving school security and mental health counseling.

But public opinion surveys and interviews with victims’ families and Uvalde residents suggest that many Texans are more open to gun control measures than their Republican leaders, and would support expanding background checks and raising the age requirement to buy assault-style rifles to 21 from 18.

Trey Laborde, a local rancher, brought his gun to a fund-raiser for relatives of victims of the shooting, where he was helping to smoke meat. Mr. Laborde said he despises President Biden, thinks the 2020 election was stolen and recoils at calls to take away people’s guns. He believes “all these teachers should be armed.”

But he also wants more limits on gun access.

“I don’t think that anybody should be able to buy a gun unless they’re 25,” Mr. Laborde said. He was recently given an assault rifle as a gift by his father-in-law but said, “I don’t think they should be sold,” he said, adding: “Nobody hunts with those types of rifles.”

Public support for some gun control measures has held steady throughout recent years of opinion polls, as Texas was rocked by deadly mass shootings at a Walmart in El Paso and in the streets of Odessa.

In a February poll by the University of Texas/Texas Politics Project, 43 percent of Texans said they supported stricter gun laws while just 16 percent wanted looser rules. In earlier polls, majorities supported universal background checks and were against allowing gun owners to carry handguns in public without a license or training; 71 percent of Texans supported background checks on all gun purchases, according to a poll from the University of Texas/Texas Politics Project in 2021.

ImageA new tattoo on the arm of a resident.Credit…Meridith Kohut for The New York Times

Three hundred miles away from Uvalde, raw divisions over gun rights in Texas were on vivid display on Friday as hundreds of gun control supporters protested outside an annual National Rifle Association convention in Houston. Inside, Mr. Trump and others blamed “evil” and an array of social ills for the attacks, but not easy access to guns.

Mr. Abbott withdrew from speaking in person at the convention and instead traveled to Uvalde amid mounting anger over revelations that the police response was delayed in confronting and killing the gunman.

The Roman Catholic archbishop of San Antonio, whose territory includes Uvalde, said the N.R.A. should have canceled its meeting in Houston. “The country is in mourning, but they are not,” Gustavo García-Siller, the archbishop, said in an interview, calling the embrace of guns “a culture of death in our midst.”

Vincent Salazar, 66, whose granddaughter Layla was killed in the Uvalde attack, said he had kept guns in his house for 30 years for protection. But as he grieved the girl who won three blue ribbons at Robb Elementary’s Field Day, he said he wanted lawmakers to at least raise the age for selling long guns like the black AR-15-style rifle used in his granddaughter’s killing.

“This freedom to carry, what did it do?” Mr. Salazar asked. “It killed.”

Several parents and relatives of Uvalde’s victims said they wanted politicians in Texas to follow the lead of six states that have raised the age for buying semiautomatic rifles to 21 from 18. But gun rights supporters are challenging those laws in court, and recently won a legal victory after an appeals court struck down California’s ban on selling semiautomatic guns to young adults.

Javier Cazares, whose daughter Jacklyn was killed inside Robb Elementary, carries a gun and fully supports the Second Amendment, having learned how to fire semiautomatic rifles at 18 when he enlisted in the U.S. Army. But he said the killing of Jacklyn and so many of her fourth-grade friends should force politicians into tightening gun measures.

“There should be a lot stricter laws,” he said. “To buy a weapon at 18 — it’s kind of ridiculous.”

Even as many in Uvalde have said they want to focus their attention on the victims, the conversation about guns has been reverberating through town. Kendall White, who guides groups on hunting trips, helped cook at the barbecue fund-raiser for relatives of victims of the attack on Friday.

ImageSeveral relatives of Uvalde’s victims said they wanted politicians in Texas to follow the lead of states that have raised the age for buying semiautomatic rifles to 21 from 18.Credit…Ivan Pierre Aguirre for The New York Times

Mr. White said he would never give up the right to “legally go out and harvest an animal and bring it home to my kids.” He crowed over the fact that his daughter shot her first white-tailed deer at the age of 3.

“She was sitting on my lap,” he said.

Mr. White believes people are the problem — not guns. “Guns don’t kill nobody, period,” he said. “You’ve got to have somebody pull the trigger.”

But the recent mass shootings have weighed on Mr. White, who is 45, and this one, in his hometown, left him gutted.

He says he wants some things to change.

“He should never have been able to get that gun,” Mr. White said, referring to the gunman. “We should raise the age limit. We should do stronger background checks.” There is room, he said, “for some compromises” on gun laws.

Ricardo García was working a shift as a groundskeeper at Uvalde Memorial Hospital on Tuesday when the first students from Robb Elementary were hustled inside the emergency room, followed by a group of parents. As the hours wore on, he said, the hospital began informing families that their children had died.

Mothers screamed the word “no” over and over. Fathers banged on the walls of the hospital.

Mr. García said he has never owned a gun and now believes the only way to solve gun violence in America is to ban them for everyone other than law enforcement.

“They’ve got to stop selling the guns,” he said. “The governor’s got to do something about it.”

One child, who came in with blood on his shirt, told his parents that he was right next to the gunman as he was shooting, and now the boy couldn’t hear out of one ear.

“He had an AR-15 man, inside a classroom,” Mr. García said. “It’s going to make a lot of noise for those kids.”

ImageVictor M. Cabrales, grandfather of Eliahana Torres.Credit…Meridith Kohut for The New York Times

The grief swirling through the little green house where Eliahana Torres once cared for her goldfish and practiced her softball swing into the night was still raw as relatives gathered to grapple with her killing.

An uncle, Leo Flores, said that someday, some other gunman would attack another school. He said the best hope for preventing more bloodshed was to arm and prepare teachers — a view shared by many conservative politicians and residents across Texas.

But inside the house, Eliahana’s grandfather, Victor M. Cabrales, said the seeming inevitability of another mass shooting was a clarion call for stronger gun restrictions.

“It’s because we don’t do nothing,” he said. “We need a change. A real change. Not just words.”

Rick Rojas and Josh Peck contributed reporting.