America is absorbing the shock of another bloody mass shooting a day after an 18-year-old man wearing body armour and carrying assault rifles entered an elementary school in Texas and gunned to death at least 19 children and two adults.
The attack on Robb elementary school in Uvalde, 85 miles west of San Antonio, was the deadliest gun rampage in an American school in almost a decade. It prompted passionate calls for tougher gun controls led by the US president, Joe Biden, matched by equally stringent demands for more armed guards in schools from the gun lobby and Republicans.
The shooting began to unfold at 11.32am on Tuesday morning when the shooter, who is believed to have posted photographs of what he called “my guns” on Instagram four days previously, opened fire in a classroom of nine- and 10-year-olds. He then went classroom to classroom, officials said, bearing two assault-style weapons that he is thought to have bought this month shortly after his 18th birthday.
The shooter died at the scene, having been reportedly killed by police. Earlier, he shot his grandmother at her home in Uvalde, a small town of 16,000 mainly Hispanic or Latino residents. She survived the attack but is in critical condition.
Among the confirmed victims were two adults: Eva Mireles, a bilingual special education teacher at the school, and Irma Garcia, who had taught there for 23 years and had four children of her own.
The mass shooting was the deadliest in modern Texas history, and left more people dead than any US school shooting since Sandy Hook elementary school in Connecticut in December 2012. The impact of the shooting was compounded by its timing, just 10 days after another 18-year-old gunman opened fire on largely Black grocery shoppers in a supermarket in Buffalo, New York, killing 10 people.
A visibly shaken Biden later urged Americans to resist the powerful gun lobby, which he blamed for blocking enactment of tougher firearms laws. Flags will be flown at half-mast until sunset on Saturday in observance of the tragedy, he said.
“As a nation, we have to ask, ‘When in God’s name are we going to stand up to the gun lobby?’” Biden said. “When in God’s name are we going to do what has to be done? Why are we willing to live with this carnage?” He was “sick and tired of it”, he said, adding: “We have to act.”
But Republican leaders – not least in Texas itself – were just as robust in their calls for more guns in schools as a response to the shooting. Ted Cruz, the US senator from Texas, said just a few hours after the school attack that the best way to keep kids safe was to have armed law enforcement officers present on campus.
Ken Paxton, Texas’s attorney general, told the rightwing news outlet Newsmax that the way to save lives was to have “teachers and other administrators who have gone through training and who are armed”.
Their arguments were belied, however, by the facts of the Uvalde massacre. As the shooter entered the elementary school, two local police officers and a school guard opened fire in an attempt to stop him, but failed to do so, allowing him to carry on with his gruesome plans.
In recent years Texas has led the US in its lax approach to gun controls with a steady stream of initiatives loosening restrictions on firearms ownership. Last year its Republican governor, Greg Abbott, enacted a law that removed almost all restraints on carrying handguns in public – despite the fact that Texas has been the scene of several of the most horrifying mass shootings in US history.
Biden and other campaigners for greater gun controls face the numbing reality that in the US there are more firearms in circulation than there are people. The pandemic has seen a dramatic uptick in gun sales, and with it a surge in violent gun deaths.
In the last decade there have been at least 3,500 mass shootings defined as incidents killing or injuring four or more people, according to the Gun Violence Archive. The rate of deaths of children under 14 has also risen sharply since the pandemic.
There were heartbreaking scenes outside the Uvalde school in the immediate aftermath of the shooting. Hours after the attack, distraught families were still awaiting word on whether their children had survived, with the silence broken repeatedly by screams and wailing.
“My heart is broken today,” said Hal Harrell, the school district superintendent. “We’re a small community, and we’re going to need your prayers to get through this.”
The school was preparing for its final day on Thursday. A series of themed days had been organised, with children asked to come on Tuesday dressed as “Footloose and Fancy”.
Adolfo Cruz, 69, said he drove to the school after receiving a terrifying phone call from his daughter. He was waiting for news of his 10-year-old great-granddaughter, Eliajha Cruz Torres, and it was the heaviest moment of his life, he said.
In strong international reactions to the shooting, Pope Francis said he was “heartbroken”, adding: “It is time to say ‘enough’ to the indiscriminate trafficking of weapons.” Emmanuel Macron said the French people shared Americans’ shock and grief at the “cowardly” shooting, while Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, said he was “deeply saddened by the news of the murder of innocent children”.