WASHINGTON (AP) — As families and loved ones mourn the unimaginable loss of 19 children and two teachers shot dead last year in Uvalde, Texas, President Joe Biden will speak Wednesday about the epidemic of gun violence that has become the No. 1 killer of kids in America.
The town planned a private ceremony and candlelight vigil in the evening, and the Texas legislature paused for a few moments of silence at 11:30 a.m. CDT, the moment the shooter entered Robb Elementary School last year, touching off the nation’s deadliest school shooting in a decade.
Biden will talk about what he saw when he visited the town shortly after the shooting, according to excerpts of his remarks.
“Standing there in Uvalde, Jill and I couldn’t help but think that too many schools, too many everyday places have become killing fields in communities across America,” Biden is expected to say. “And in each place, we hear the same message: Do something. For God’s sake, just do something.”
The killings, along with another mass shooting in Buffalo, New York, prompted bipartisan legislation that passed through a divided Congress just a month later, It was the most significant gun safety law in decades.
The law toughened background checks for the youngest gun buyers, and sought to keep firearms from domestic violence offenders and to help states put in place red flag laws that make it easier for authorities to take weapons away from people adjudged to be dangerous.
But those laws haven’t stopped mass shootings or gun deaths of children. And Uvalde is still managing the fallout from the botched emergency response to the shooting. An investigation is still ongoing into how the days after the attack were marred by authorities giving inaccurate and conflicting accounts about efforts made to stop a teenage gunman armed with an AR-style rifle.
A damning report by Texas lawmakers found nearly 400 officers had been on the scene, from an array of federal, state and local agencies. The findings laid out how heavily armed officers waited more than an hour to confront and kill the 18-year-old gunman. It also accused police of failing “to prioritize saving innocent lives over their own safety.”
All of the students killed were between the ages of 9 and 11 years old.
On Wednesday, a bipartisan group of lawmakers led by Texas state Sen. Roland Gutierrez, a Democrat who represents Uvalde, read the names of the 21 victims who were murdered as the entire chamber paused in remembrance.
Each victim was memorialized with a speech, describing who they were and the loved ones they left behind. “I pray that in all of our differences, we aspire to our better angels, perhaps remember those moments when we were little,” Gutierrez said. “Look at the pictures of these children and remember our better angels.”
Throughout Texas’ biennial legislative session, which began in January and ends Monday, a group of the victims’ family members made the three-hour drive to Austin every Tuesday, with few exceptions, to lobby lawmakers in hopes of raising the legal age requirement to own certain semiautomatic weapons — like the one used by the 18-year-old Uvalde shooter — from 18 to 21.
But in the GOP-controlled Texas Capitol, Republicans this year rejected it and nearly all other proposals to tighten gun laws.
Several months in, the new federal law has had some success: Stepped-up FBI background checks have blocked gun sales for 119 buyers under the age of 21, prosecutions have increased for unlicensed gun sellers and new gun trafficking penalties have been charged in at least 30 cases around the country. Millions of new dollars have flowed into mental health services for children and schools.
Yet since that bill signing last summer, the tally of mass shootings in the United States has only grown. Five dead at a nightclub in Colorado. Eleven killed at a dance hall in California. Three 9-year-olds and three adults shot and killed at an elementary school in Nashville, Tennessee. Seven shot dead in rural Oklahoma. As of earlier this month, 97 people had been killed in 19 mass killings this year, exceeding the record set in 2009 when 93 people were killed in 17 incidents by the end of April.
Firearms are the No. 1 killer of children in the U.S. and so far this year, 85 children younger than 11 have died by guns and 491 have died between the ages of 12 and 17. As of 2020, the firearm mortality rate for children under 19 is 5.6 per 100,000. The next comparable is Canada, with .08 per 100,000 deaths.
“So it’s time to act,” Biden will say, according to his prepared remarks. “It’s time to make our voices heard. Not as Democrats or Republicans. But as friends, neighbors, parents — and as fellow Americans.”
Coronado reported from Austin, Texas.