Uvalde is a small city. Around two weeks ago, Angie Garza, a grandmother who helps run an automotive radiator repair shop on Main Street, took in Celia Gonzales’s grey Ford truck — it needed its air conditioning fixed.
On a follow-up visit a few days later, Garza recalls, there seemed to be something on her customer’s mind. “She looked distressed. She said she was dealing with her grandson.”
On Tuesday, Gonzales was shot by her 18-year-old grandson, Salvador Ramos, and remains in a critical condition. Ramos took her truck to make a short journey in the direction of Robb Elementary School, before crashing into a ditch.
Wearing body armour and carrying an automatic rifle, sold to him legally, he went inside the school and killed 19 children and two teachers. Among the dead was Amerie Jo Garza, Angie’s granddaughter. She was 10.
“We’re just praying she’s OK . . . up there,” Garza says, with a tearful glance to the heavens. “She was sweet, smart. We loved her.”
On top of her grief, Garza has questions, like many others in the Texan city, over the response by the Uvalde police force to the shootings.
Garza wants to know why the gunman was able to gain access to the school through a door which was, according to a police report, left unlocked. Others question why he was able to enter unobstructed and unchallenged by security personnel who were meant to have prevented such a thing being possible.
People here are most incensed that it took around 90 minutes after the attack began before Ramos was killed; not by local police who were on the scene within minutes, but by a Border Patrol agent who arrived later and was able to gain access to the classroom where Ramos had barricaded himself. A majority Latino town, Uvalde is just 60 miles from the Mexican border.
“People are angry because the police didn’t go in when they should have,” says Diana Chapa, 60, who lives in a house two doors down from where Ramos lived with his grandparents. “If you’re a cop, you have the training. I think they should have gone in.”
Chaotic smartphone footage, taken outside the school while the attack was taking place, shows desperate parents pleading with police to enter the school and confront the gunman — or to be allowed to go in themselves. One video shows a man being pinned to the ground by officers. According to a Wall Street Journal report, one mother was able to go around the police barricade and retrieve her two children from inside the school.
Conflicting police accounts are rapidly undermining trust. Officials had initially said the gunman had been approached by a school district officer outside of the school. By Thursday afternoon this account had fundamentally changed. “He was not confronted by anybody,” said Victor Escalon, from the Texas Department of Public Safety, a state body responsible for law enforcement, during a press conference, adding that his team was still trying to piece together the facts.
“I think they’re embarrassed, or scared,” said one resident who lived near the school but asked not to be named as a family member works for the force.
Questions are also being asked about why warning signs were not heeded in time to be acted upon, in particular how Ramos was able to acquire two automatic rifles from Oasis Outback, an outdoor recreational megastore a short drive up from Garza’s garage on Main Street, without arousing concern.
Following the attack, the store, which is still open for business, changed its digital promotions board to say “Pray for Uvalde” and “#UvaldeStrong”.
If there’s one common thread of agreement to be found among people in Uvalde, it is that it should have been much harder, or perhaps not possible at all, for any 18-year-old to buy a gun, let alone a young man described by those close to him as troubled.
“It’s crazy that an 18-year-old is able to buy something that powerful,” said Julio Garcia, a Uvalde resident, after a vigil on Wednesday night. He said he knew several of the victims and their families. His son, 16-year-old Abraham, said gun laws needed to be “more strict”, even if that just meant upping the minimum age requirements.
When US President Joe Biden visits the city, which he has said he will do on Sunday, he will face calls for decisive leadership in highly divisive circumstances. Uvalde County voted 57 per cent for Donald Trump in 2020, and the Republican message of better security and mental healthcare as a prevention method for America’s gun violence crisis appears to resonate here more than the suggestion that strict gun control, the banning of weapons, is the answer.
“Have the teachers, or staff, carry a gun,” said Marina Small, a 66-year-old retired teacher who lives in nearby San Antonio. “Yes, I believe that. Be very discreet, very private about it. But if they hear that alarm — get your gun, and be trained for it.”