US President Joe Biden and First Lady Jill Biden on Sunday offered comfort to a city gripped by grief and anger as they paid their respects at a memorial to 19 students and two teachers killed in a mass shooting at a Texas elementary school.
The visit to Uvalde was Biden’s second trip in as many weeks to comfort a grieving community after a stunning shooting loss. He traveled to Buffalo, NY on May 17 to meet with victims’ families and to condemn white supremacy after a gunman promoting the racist “surrogate theory” killed 10 black people in a supermarket.
Outside Robb Elementary School, Biden stopped at a memorial with 21 white crosses – one for each of those killed – and the first lady added a bouquet of white flowers to a pile in front of the school sign. They looked at individual altars erected to commemorate each student, and the First Lady touched the children’s photos as the couple moved down the line.
The Texas and New York shootings and their aftermath have shed new light on the nation’s deep-seated divisions and its inability to build consensus on action to reduce gun violence.
“Evil came into this elementary school classroom in Texas, into this grocery store in New York, into far too many places where innocent people have died,” Biden said in an inaugural address at the University of Delaware on Saturday. “We have to be stronger. We have to be stronger. We can’t ban tragedy, I know, but we can make America safer.”
After visiting the memorial, Biden arrived for mass at the Catholic Sacred Heart Church, where some families of the victims are praying. Near the church, a teacher held up a sign that read, “Mr. President, thank you for coming. I am a teacher.”
“Mr. President has a good understanding of what is happening here now and we are delighted that he is here,” Archbishop Gustavo Garcia-Siller told those present.
A crowd of about 100 people chanted “Do Something” as Biden left the church for private meetings with family members at a community center. “We will,” he replied.
The President also met with emergency responders at the airport before returning to Washington. He was not expected to make any formal remarks.
Mckinzie Hinojosa, whose cousin Eliahana Torres was killed Tuesday, said she respects Biden’s decision to mourn with the people of Uvalde.
“It’s more than grief,” she said. “We want change. We want action. It happens over and over again. A mass shooting happens. It’s on the news. People are crying.”
“If there’s anything I could do to tell Joe Biden how it is just to respect our community while he’s here, and I’m sure he will,” she added. “But we need changes. We have to do something about it.”
Biden visited him amid a mounting scrutiny of the police response to the shooting. Officials revealed Friday that students and teachers repeatedly called 911 operators for help when a police commander asked more than a dozen officers to wait in a hallway. Officials said the commander believed the suspect had been barricaded in an adjacent classroom and there was no longer an active attack.
The revelation caused more grief and raised new questions about whether lives were lost because officers didn’t act faster to stop the gunman, who was eventually killed by Border Patrol tactical officers.
The U.S. Department of Justice announced Sunday it would review law enforcement’s response and release its findings.
“It’s easy to point the finger at others right now,” Ronnie Garza, a Uvalde County Commissioner, said on CBS’ Face the Nation, before adding, “Our community needs to focus on healing now. “
Authorities said the gunman legally purchased two guns shortly before the school was attacked: an AR-style rifle on May 17 and a second rifle on May 20. He had just turned 18, which allowed him to purchase the guns under federal law.
Hours after the shooting, Biden made an impassioned plea for additional gun control legislation, asking, “When in God’s name are we going to stand against the gun lobby?” Why are we willing to live with this carnage? Why do we keep letting this happen?”
Over the years, Biden has been closely involved in the gun control movement’s most notable achievements, such as the 1994 assault weapons ban that expired in 2004, and its most troubling disappointments, including the failure to pass new legislation following the 2012 massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.
As president, Biden has attempted to curb gun violence through executive branch orders. He now faces few new options, but executive action may be the best the president can do given Washington’s sharp divisions over gun control legislation.
In Congress, a bipartisan group of senators held talks over the weekend to see if they could reach even a modest compromise on gun safety legislation after a decade of largely failed efforts.
Encouraging “red flag” laws to keep guns away from people with mental health problems, as well as addressing school security and mental health resources are on the table, said Sen. Chris Murphy, who is leading the effort.
While Republicans in Congress don’t have nearly enough support for broader gun safety proposals popular with the public, including a new ban on assault weapons or universal background checks on gun purchases, Murphy, D-Conn., told ABC’s This Week. that this is the case, other ideas are “not insignificant”.
The group will meet again this week with 10 days’ notice to reach an agreement.
“There are more Republicans this time who are interested in talking about finding a way forward than I’ve seen since Sandy Hook,” said Murphy, who was a congressman in the area at the time of the Sandy Hook shooting represented Newtown. “And while I may end up heartbroken, I now sit at the table with Republicans and Democrats in a more meaningful way than ever before.”
AP congressional correspondent Lisa Mascaro and Associated Press writer Darlene Superville in Washington, and AP video journalist Robert Bumsted in Uvalde, Texas, contributed to this report.