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The solemn line of families took turns walking down the steps of the Texas Capitol to a lone microphone set in the bright Saturday sun. There, they shared sacred details of their loved ones, who were among the 21 people gunned down in Texas’ deadliest May 24 school shooting.
Maite Yuleana Rodriguez’s favorite color was green.
Eliahna Torres was looking forward to the final softball game of the season.
Alexandria “Lexi” Aniyah Rubio would have become a lawyer.
In the midday heat, families of the 19 students and two teachers killed at Robb Elementary in Uvalde — and survivors of other mass shootings — called for gun reform action from Texas leaders.
“I didn’t choose to be here, I was kind of thrown here,” Jasmine Cazares told the Texas Tribune after the rally in the shadow of the Capitol.
Since the shooting, Jasmine Cazares has been campaigning for gun reform on behalf of her sister Jackie.
Gov. Greg Abbott was the focus of the anger of many family members during Saturday’s rally on the steps of the Capitol, organized in part by student-led gun safety advocacy group March For Our Lives. Abbott has made a vocal enemy of the parents of Uvalde shooting victims, drawing criticism for their inaction to address one of the families’ key concerns: limiting access to firearms and making another massacre more difficult.
Proponents, aware that Republicans have a firm grip on the state’s lax gun laws, have called for a compromise with GOP leaders and called for a special legislative session to raise the age for purchasing an automatic rifle in the state from 18 to 21 increase – not an outright ban on the weapon style used on Robb Elementary, just a three year increase in the age limit to purchase one.
The 18-year-old gunman in Uvalde bought two AR-15 rifles immediately after reaching legal purchasing age in May.
Only Abbott can call a special session of the legislature, but has so far resisted any requests to do so following the Uvalde shooting. He was criticized for attending a fundraiser for his re-election campaign on the night of the shooting – rather than canceling it. He is being challenged by Democrat Beto O’Rourke, a former US Congressman from El Paso who previously ran unsuccessfully for the US Senate and President.
Uvalde residents traveled the three hours to Austin to lobby for action. Their lawsuits followed a Fort Worth federal judge who ruled that a Texas ban prohibiting adults under 21 from carrying handguns was unconstitutional, although he allowed the law to stand pending an appeal. And although Texas has seen eight mass shootings in the past 13 years, the State gun laws have only been relaxed.
Many at Saturday’s rally said they just wanted some sort of compromise on gun reform. They said they expected to have a prominent role in an ongoing movement.
“I didn’t intend to do that, no one intends to do that,” Jasmine Cazares said of her advocacy.
She said pushing for gun restrictions in a state that values the constitutional right to firearms is exhausting but uplifting.
Her father, Javier Cazares, said the governor seemed sincere in his concern when he first met Abbott just a day after the tragedy. But months later, when Abbott returned to Uvalde, he said the governor’s presence felt more like a campaign freeze.
“He didn’t have any emotions or anything, just his general demeanor was, ‘I have to be here because I have to be here,'” Javier Cazares told the Tribune.
Abbott also drew ire shortly after the shooting for providing false information at press conferences. The governor first praised law enforcement’s response to the shooting, once saying, “It could have been worse.” Nearly 400 law enforcement officers waited more than an hour to confront the gunam at Robb Elementary, which was widely and severely criticized, including in a report by a Texas House committee investigating the matter. Abbott later said he was misled about the response before making those public comments.
Abbott’s office did not respond to a request for comment Saturday. After his social media Pages spent Saturday campaigning and knocking on the doors of Fort Bend County voters.
When Javier Cazares asked Abbott to raise the minimum age to purchase an automatic rifle, he said the governor dodged the question. Other Uvalde families told stories of Abbott offering his help and asking what he could do for them, only to be disappointed by his lack of action on the issue of gun reform – the only concession families drove to Austin to look into hoping the future Texas families would not share their fate.
When Maggie Mireles Thomas and her family met Abbott after the death of her sister Eva Mireles, one of Robb’s elementary school teachers, he asked her, “What can I please do?”
“I told him to his face you can change these laws, you can do that. And he said he was going to work hard on it and that didn’t happen,” Mireles Thomas told the crowd. “He kept his word to my family and none of those families.”
Abbott’s response was well known to the families of other mass shooting victims in Texas. These survivors spoke out in support and solidarity with the Uvalde families. Rosie Stone recalled Abbott’s similar inaction after her son Chris was killed in the 2018 Santa Fe school shooting.
“We were at his house, right over there, we were promised a lot of things, we asked for a lot of loose change, and nothing ever changed,” Stone told the 300 or so people who had gathered for the rally, pointing to the mansion The Governor’s stands just 1000 feet away from the steps of the Capitol. “I’m a conservative Republican, I’m a gun owner myself, but I can stand under Democrats and see what changes need to be made.”
Since Republicans are responsible for all levels of state government, the power to do anything rests in their hands, Stone said. However, restricting access to guns has long been a non-starter for the GOP.
Earlier this year, following the Robb Elementary shooting, US Republican Senator John Cornyn helped push the first major federal gun legislation through Congress in nearly three decades. Among other things, the law improves background checks for gun buyers under the age of 21 and makes it easier to remove firearms from people who threaten to kill themselves or others. But it largely doesn’t restrict the rights of existing gun owners — and Cornyn faced backlash from his own party after he got the bill through the Senate.
Families from Uvalde hope they won’t have to face future parents of school shooting victims to demand action. But they are willing to keep fighting and lobbying for gun policy changes in Texas.
Vincent Salazar told the Tribune he doesn’t see himself as a lawyer before May 24, but in the three months since the tragedy in which he lost his 11-year-old daughter, Layla Salazar, he hasn’t seen any progress on Abbott’s gun reform issue. So he came to Austin to fight for his daughter.
“Being out here feels like the right thing,” Salazar said.
The full 2022 program is now LIVE Texas Tribune Festival, September 22-24 in Austin. Explore the schedule of over 100 mind-bending talks coming to TribFest, including inside tracks on the 2022 election and 2023 legislative session, the state of the public and higher education at this stage of the pandemic, why the Texas suburbs are booming, why Broadband access issues, the legacy of slavery, what really happened in Uvalde and much more. See the program.