This week, tearful but tenacious families of the 19 children murdered in their Uvalde classrooms at Robb Elementary School marked Día de Muertos, Day of the Dead, by marching on the Texas capitol to both honor their lost children and reiterate their (futile) months-long pleas for sensible gun reform from Gov. Greg ‘Could-Have-Been-Worse’ Abbott and his retrograde cabal of GOP lawmakers – a dauntless act, after so much anguish, one admirer likened to “the courage of a million gladiators.” According to tradition, the souls of dead children descend from heaven at midnight on Oct. 31 to reunite with their families; the next day, the souls of dead adults – here, two teachers – come to visit. The Austin event, organized by the Mexican American Legislative Caucus of the Texas Legislature, featured a vigil and speeches at the Statehouse, followed by an eerily silent procession to the governor’s mansion; en route, families carried a large ofrenda, or altar, adorned with Our Lady of Guadalupe, painted skulls, photos of the dead, foods they liked, and marigolds said to entice the souls of the dead. A note in front read, “Protect Our Children: 21 por 21” – a reference to their oh-so-minimal demand to raise the legal age to buy an assault rifle from 18 to 21 in honor of 21 lives lost. Ana Rodriquez, whose only daughter Maite was killed: “We should be choosing her Halloween costume together, but instead I’m making her an ofrenda.”
Other Día de Muertos vigils were held in Houston, Dallas, San Antonio, where high school art students created an especially wrenching “Muertofest” tribute with 20 personalized desks, one for each child, one for the teachers. In Austin, at the steps of the Statehouse, each Uvalde family spoke of the child they lost, their love of video games, sports, pets, siblings. The 17-year-old sister of Jackie Cazares, killed in the shooting, said she’d met with Gov. Abbott, who “believes he can ignore us”; listing earlier Texas shootings in Sutherland Springs, Santa Fe, El Paso, Odessa that brought no change, she bitterly predicted, “Greg Abbott will continue to fail us.” Abbott was nowhere in sight, but Beto O’Rourke walked with the families and brought gifts for the ofrenda. “We are here today celebrating our children’s lives,” said Kimberly Rubio, whose daughter Lexi Rubio died in the shooting, “but also trying to reach out to parents on (a) mom-and-dad level” urging them to vote for O’Rourke and other gun-control supporters. Since the May murders, and 17 injuries, many familiy members have regularly made the three-hour drive from Uvalde to the capitol to plead with lawmakers for change; Dora Mendoza, whose 10-year-old granddaughter Amerie Jo Garza was killed, is one of them. “We do not have our kids, and that is why we are here,” she said. “To fight for them and to fight for justice.”
Amidst unimaginable levels of bloodshed in this country – gun violence reached a “staggering” record of over 100 deaths a day in 2020 – Uvalde was the second deadliest school shooting in the U.S., and the deadliest in Texas. Of those killed by the shooter, who had just bought two AR-15s for his18th birthday, all were fourth-graders, and all were 10 or under. Yet the carnage did not stop. It didn’t even slow. In the week after, at least 18 mass shootings took place around the country – Sen. Chris Murphy: “FYI, this isn’t stopping”; in the two weeks after, there were 33. Since the 2018 shooting at Parkland’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, 700 people have been shot at U.S. schools. In the last three years, gun deaths have soared, with a record 250 school shootings in 2021. This year, with two months left, has already passed that record. There have been 257 shootings at schools as of Oct. 24, when a 19-year-old gunman armed with two AR-15s and 600 rounds of ammunition killed a teenager and a teacher at St. Louis’ Central Visual and Performing Arts High School; he wounded seven more before police shot him dead. The school had metal detectors, locked doors and seven armed security officers, just like the right-wing NRA echo chamber mindlessly, endlessly prescribes. The shooting barely made a ripple in the day’s news.
In a nation steeped in blood, Texas is the bloodiest. It leads the country in mass shootings, boasting over 400 gun deaths just around Dallas-Fort Worth during the first six months of 2022. Coincidentally or no, Texans also buy the most guns – over 1.6 million in 2021, one for every 14 adults, and 150,464 in the month after Uvalde, 17% more than the month before – though the rate of gun ownership is dropping as the population grows faster. The NRA and other gun rights groups also spend the most in Texas on lobbying – $14 million – and buying pols, with Ted ‘We-Need-To-Have-Just-One-Door’ Cruz leading the pack in donations; John Cornyn comes in third. So we guess it shouldn’t be surprising but somehow what the holy fuck it is that just 72 hours after 19 fourth-graders were slaughtered in Uvalde, the NRA held its annual convention in Houston, a few hours’ drive away. Some speakers canceled in the name of common decency, but – duh – Trump was still headliner. After “prayerful consideration,” Greg Abbott decided not to appear in person but – have cake, eat it too – in a recording he said he’s “a strong supporter of the 2nd Amendment.” Those in attendance blamed the terrible shooting on the decline of two-parent households, the removal of God from public schools, the rise of social media and mental illness, and not enough prisons. Definitely nothing to do with guns.
The maxim “Texas is hard on women and little things” opens a stunning, damning piece in July’s Texas Monthly titled “A Year of ‘Protecting Children'” that documents the widespread, tragic, infuriating failures of a GOP-run state – frayed social safety net, under-funded health care system, abusive “spike-pit” child welfare system, decrepit electrical grid, public schools under assault by zealots even as children are asked, “on a regular basis, to rehearse being hunted” – that have consistently betrayed its kids even as campaigning politicians claim to be “saving” them; thus does Uvalde become one sorrowful piece of a calamitous whole. “If Texas GOP leaders showed great disrespect to the Uvalde students in life – and indeed it did,” writes Christopher Hooks, “then we have also disrespected them in death.” After Uvalde, GOP lawmakers and strategists went all out to hide the blood-spattered elephant in the room, resolutely pivoting away from the messy issue of gun control. “Ignore guns, talk inflation,” they said. Or the border, or trans kids, or gas prices, or how parents “can’t trust government schools (to) safeguard your children.” As with all their other neglected problems, they approached the problem of dead children with stop-gap, quick-fix solutions – locks, cops, clear backpacks – that had already proven pointless, and still were.
Greg Abbott, meanwhile, was right with them. After being savaged for spending hours at a fundraiser the night of the shooting – and Beto’s impassioned charge, “This is on you” – Abbott took to playing the elder statesman. He “wore his traditional white disaster-response shirt and offered details of the massacre as if reading a weather report (in) the manner of an animatronic robot,” reports Texas Monthly. He also declared the slaughter “could have been worse,” giving him an edge in his contest of tone-deafness with A.G. Ken Paxton, who went on Newsmax in a campaign t-shirt to suggest more armed cops “because it’s not going to be the last time.” Abbott claimed it turned out so well because police “showed amazing courage by running toward gunfire,” when of course hundreds loitered outside for over an hour, sometimes handcuffing distraught parents, as children begged 911 for help in a debacle now facing a criminal investigation. This week, CNN released a call from a girl who survived, with footage of the chaos outside; Twitter: “Big men with big guns are the biggest cowards. They all belong in hell.” It ends with one distressed cop muttering, “Fuck, we’re taking too long.” Above all, an intransigent Abbott did nothing on guns, refusing even to raise the legal age to buy a friggin’ assault rifle from 18 to 21; he claimed it would be “unconstitutional,” though last time we looked we didn’t see any AR-15s mentioned there.
Deflect and dodge: It’s the Republican way. Since Uvalde, Abbott et al have focused on “protecting” children by declaring a war on public schools and their teachers, with trans kids their primary target and anything sexy right behind. In their moral panic, the state has deemed trans health care “child abuse,” they want to investigate parents who support their trans kids (ditto), they are making lists of books to be banned – no boys in dresses, no “obscene material” – and Abbott has vowed to prosecute offenders “to the fullest extent of the law.” To, you know, “protect” students. Meanwhile, the “abundance of mental health services” he promised Uvalde families and survivors – like Lalo Diaz, tasked with telling parents their children had died, who still hears cell phones ringing from the backpacks of dead children – has been hard and pricey to find. That could be because Abbott both cut funding to state mental health programs, and spent millions on ugly anti-immigrant stunts like busing migrants to D.C. to “punish” Democrats. “Each revelation of new misery brings a new wave of revulsion,” Hooks writes of a Texas Legislature that “turns out to be suffused with a very dull and banal kind of evil.” And it’s getting worse, from election-denying to abortion to guns. “There used to be at least a perfunctory mourning period, some hugs given in front of cameras,” he notes, “before those in power turned to one another and shrugged.”
To be fair, Abbott isn’t just shrugging. He did pass a permitless gun bill allowing anyone to carry without training or a license, though everyone but the NRA said it was insanely dangerous which it’s proving to be. And now he’s sending out DNA kits to Texas parents so if their kids’ bodies are mutilated beyond recognition in the next inevitable school shooting – like they were in Uvalde – they’ll be able to identify them. Treating the mass murder of children as a logistical problem to plan for rather than a grotesque catastrophe beyond imagining by a civilzed society, the Texas Education Agency in mid-October began distributing almost four million ink-free fingerprint and DNA identification cards to families for use “should something occur to their child.” “School districts throughout the state are encouraging parents to keep these kits handy,” they say of the kits, “a gift of safety, from our family to yours.” “The data would be gathered and the fingerprints and DNA could be turned into law enforcement if an emergency arises.” To be clear: While they were signed into law – the Child I.D. Kits for Safe Recovery Act – after the 2018 Santa Fe High School shooting that killed ten people, officials say the kits are not a response to Uvalde or any other school shooting. Part of a National Child Identification Program, they say they are aimed at finding missing kids, not identifying victims of “a mass casualty incident” – language that reassures about as much as “should they need to be identified.”
Given all that’s come before, and even though it’s voluntary, officials acknowledge a bit of a “communications mess” with the program: “At this point in time, I think we have to exercise a great deal of caution to make sure that we’re not sending messages, unintended, that suggest that there is a greater probability of a school shooting than there actually is,” said one who called a mass school shooting “a high-impact but low-probability event.” Still, parents are somehow not assauged. “This is the sickest thing I’ve ever seen,” was one response. Another: “Omg. Disgusting. This is Greg Abbott’s Texas.” “Yeah! Awesome!” wrote Brett Cross, whose son Uziyah was killed in Uvalde. “Let’s identify kids after they’ve been murdered instead of fixing issues that could ultimately prevent them from being murdered.” Other parents say the state is “telling us they’re not going to do anything to solve the problem,” that they should be worrying about parent-teacher sign-up sheets or if their kid likes that day’s lunch in the cafeteria, “not if they’re shot so many times their body can’t be identified.” “The only way you can reasonably send your children to school is simply to tell yourself this won’t happen to your kids, which of course is just lying to yourself,” said one mom. “Kits shatter that lie, and are an incredibly triggering, in-your-face reminder our kids are at risk of being obliterated.”
One of the most haunting moments to come out of the Uvalde tragedy was a message tagged onto newly released police bodycam footage from the shooting. As searing images played of the shooter stalking the halls of the school, pausing at classroom doorways, and finally stopping at one before opening fire, a note appeared on the screen: “The sound of children screaming has been removed.” Last week, an unknown group called “No It Couldn’t LLC” – an apparent reference to Abbott’s “it could have been worse” – released a chilling ad, “Side Effect,” using some of that footage. It starts with a narrator noting that most law enforcement denounced Abbott’s new permitless gun bill as dangerous; then it goes to Abbott saying he “doesn’t think there will be any bad side effect” to the law, and he feels “pretty good about passing it.” The screen goes to black, then to the grainy footage of the shooter: He stands hesitating in the hall, he stops at the doors, he strides to the last, he opens fire. The ad is silent. There is no, “The sound of children screaming has been removed,” but there might as well have been. Inconceivably, horrifyingly, it’s become the mournful mantra for Texas, for America, for the too many souls of the dead.