Analysis: Grief. Horror. Inaction. Texas mass shootings follow a numbing script

People react outside the Ssgt. Willie de Leon Civic Center in Uvalde, where students were transported from Robb Elementary School after a mass shooting on May 24, 2022. (Reuters/Marco Bello, Reuters/Marco Bello)

Mass shootings in Texas have become so common, they begin to collectively feel familiar. But each lands with fresh horror.

The sniper who climbed a tower 56 years ago at the University of Texas to gun down students introduced the state to the threat. The massacre of 23 at a Walmart by a gunman targeting Hispanics reminded us in 2019 of the hatred and insanity that persist here.

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A church has been attacked. (26 dead in 2018.) And a restaurant. (24 dead in 1991.) And an Army base. (Twice: 13 dead in 2009 and 4 dead in 2014.) And a high school. (10 dead in 2018.) And drivers on the streets of Odessa-Midland. (7 dead in 2019.) And police on the streets of downtown Dallas. (5 dead in 2016.)

And now children at an elementary school.

At least 19 kids have been killed this time. And at least one teacher. Most of their names have not been released, but we know they were two days away from the end of the school year. We know they had endured the isolation brought about by at-home learning and COVID-19. We know they attended a campus in Uvalde where nearly 90% of students are Hispanic and more than four-fifths economically disadvantaged. If they’re like other elementary school students, we know they spent the day laughing and playing and making noise.

And we know what comes next: Their deaths will add another scar to the psyche of this state — and kick off a routine of mourning, outrage and, ultimately, inaction.

The familiar cycle started minutes after the shooting ended. At a press conference, Gov. Greg Abbott, wearing the recognizable white button-down shirt he often dons for disasters, choked over his words as he identified the shooter and revealed the death toll. He also shared his grief with the families of the victims.

“When parents drop their kids off at school, they have every expectation to know that they are going to be able to pick their child up when that school day ends,” Abbott said. “And there are families who are in mourning right now. And the state of Texas is in mourning with them.”

If history is a guide, the next few days will see a temporary cooling of partisan vitriol. Until Tuesday, the state’s leaders were warning that schools had become places of indoctrination — that the most innocent among us were being taught that they were racist or sexist and were being shown illicit materials.

Now a few hundred children have witnessed something no one should ever see. And Texans are being reminded that schools are where their children should feel safe. They’re being told that we need to change something as a society so this kind of thing never happens again.

But already the partisan divides that have stymied big policy reactions to past shootings are roiling. Not long after offering condolences to Abbott on the phone, President Joe Biden addressed the nation. He joined the chorus of Democrats calling for the country to do something about its abundance of guns.

“Another massacre at a Texas elementary school,” he said. “Beautiful, innocent second, third, fourth graders. As a nation, we have to ask: When in God’s name are we going to stand up to the gun lobby?”

It was the next volley in an endless fight, one that politics has turned into an irreconcilable clash of views. One group notes that this unique horror happens in America far more than any other place — and that it’s the result of practically unfettered access to guns. In few places are those guns more available than in Texas, where you can buy one in a department store and carry it on the street without a permit or training.

On the other side, there is a sincerely held belief that there are evil people who do evil things and no amount of government intervention can stop them. But maybe someone else with a gun can. And taking that gun away from good people also takes away their rights.

U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, warned about those efforts in the hours after the shooting.

“You know, inevitably, when there is a murder of this kind you see politicians try to politicize it,” he said Tuesday. “You see Democrats and a lot of folks in the media whose solution is to try to restrict the constitutional rights of law-abiding citizens. That doesn’t work.”

There’s still a lot to learn about the gunman in Uvalde, his motives, and what might have been done to stop him. There are still vigils to hold. The mourning has just begun. Some parents will likely retreat into their grief. Others will push for changes to prevent anyone else from feeling this horror — just like some of the parents of children in Newtown, Connecticut, did and some of the students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School did in Florida.

After the racist attack in El Paso, Abbott joined some families of the victims, along with law enforcement and local legislators, for roundtable discussions to do “everything we can to make sure a crime like this doesn’t happen again.” Some modest gun restrictions were discussed.

As the subsequent legislative session wrapped up, state Rep. Joe Moody, D-El Paso, stood before the state House and reminded lawmakers that “I heard lots of promises,” behind closed doors when he attended those roundtables. But by the end of the session, the Legislature opted to loosen gun laws instead.

“The fact that we turn a blind eye, or that certain people turn a blind eye, is tragic,” Moody said Tuesday. “And today tragically happens to be Uvalde County. And tomorrow it’ll be a different county. And almost three years ago, it was El Paso County.”

Correction, May 24, 2022: This story misspelled the name of the Connecticut town where the 2012 mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School took place. It is Newtown, not Newton.

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