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Uvalde Massacre Prompts New Debate on Guns Among Residents

The Wall Street Journal. logo The Wall Street Journal. 8/9/2022 Elizabeth Findell
© Lisa Krantz for the Wall Street Journal

UVALDE, Texas—On a recent hot evening, in a town that two months ago saw a gunman kill 19 children and two teachers in a school classroom, a few dozen people filtered into an auditorium to look for political solutions to prevent gun deaths.

They live in a congressional district that in just five years has been the site of or has neighbored three of the 10 deadliest mass shootings in U.S. history. The 500-mile-wide district, one of the largest in the country, extends from El Paso, 6 miles from a 2019 Walmart massacre, to the eastern edge of San Antonio, 18 miles from a 2017 Sutherland Springs church slaughter. It includes Uvalde and reaches almost to Odessa, the site of a 2019 drive-by shooting spree.

“We need to send a message to every local and state official that supports the sale of AR-15s to children that your days are numbered because we are coming after you in the voting booth,” said Aide Escamilla, a local professor who has called for raising the age for such gun purchases from 18 to 21 or older. Dr. Escamilla said she voted for GOP Gov. Greg Abbott in 2018, but doesn’t plan to vote for him again because of his response to the shooting.

Across the swaths of South and West Texas that surround Uvalde—where people from all over the state flock to hunting ranches to shoot game, ranchers want protection in remote areas and target shooting is popular—guns have long been a way of life. But after mass violence in Uvalde and other nearby areas, many residents are showing a new interest in making changes to gun policies.

In Uvalde, a usually politically quiet city of 16,000 in a county that voted 60% for former President Donald Trump in 2020, hundreds of locals marched in the streets in 100-degree heat to call for greater gun-control measures. Residents successfully appealed to city leaders in nearby Hondo to cancel a rental of city property for a Friends of the NRA fundraiser. They are brainstorming ways to fight assault-rifle sales within the county.

The renewed gun-control advocacy is pushing local political leaders, including Democrats and Republicans, to embrace moderate changes to gun laws. The district’s congressman, Tony Gonzales, was recently among just 10 House Republicans to support the first major gun legislation since 1994.

Texas Sen. John Cornyn has drawn backlash from fellow Republicans for co-sponsoring the Safer Communities Act, which tightens some gun-buying provisions and provides mental-health funding. For Mr. Gonzales, a supporter of gun rights, his vote for the legislation represented the mood of his district.

“One thing after the Uvalde shooting that I heard across my constituency, [including] the most conservative folks…was ‘Hey Tony, we need to do something,” said Mr. Gonzales, a retired naval officer.

Some 180 people in Uvalde County have registered to vote since the May shooting at Robb Elementary School, according to registration records, including some family members of its victims.

Miguel Cerrillo, whose 11-year-old daughter Miah testified to a U.S. House committee that she survived the siege by covering herself in a classmate’s blood to play dead, registered to vote for the first time this summer. He was motivated by fury at political officials at all levels, and a belief that racism was at play in the handling of the shooting, he said. He would also like to see the age to buy assault rifles raised to 21.

“We want all new people; they’re not doing anything good,” said Mr. Cerrillo, noting specifically that he wanted members of the school board and city council replaced, as well as Mr. Abbott. He didn’t specify his party affiliation or whom he would back in November.

Federal records show that background checks for gun purchases in Texas increased in the month after the shooting. Brian Kanke, a Hondo Republican and National Rifle Association member who owns a business supplying deer and other animals to hunting ranches, said 18-year-olds should be allowed to buy guns because they can be drafted into war, and said he believes anyone on a mission to kill will find a way to obtain weapons.

Video: More fallout from Uvalde shooting video (MSNBC)


While many supporters of guns have been quieter in the aftermath of the shooting, Mr. Kanke said their views will show through in votes in November, and if the legislature makes any move toward new gun measures. “We’ll gladly let our legislature know our opinion,” he said.

Cecilia Murillo, a family medicine doctor and El Paso native, was home from residency in 2019 when a suspect accused of seeking to slaughter Hispanics gunned down dozens of people in a mall where she had considered shopping that day, she said.

Two years later, Dr. Murillo moved to Uvalde. She had always wanted to be a small-town doctor, where she could be part of the community she treated. She never dreamed she would see another mass shooting in her first 10 months. “I thought I had already experienced that one in a million,” Dr. Murillo said.

On May 24, amid a bevy of unclear text messages from friends and colleagues, she was called to a chaotic scene at the hospital and realized another shooting had occurred, she said. In an exam room, she tried to treat two traumatized, injured fourth-graders who had somehow survived the attack that killed their classmates and teachers.

Dr. Murillo, a self-described political centrist and the daughter of a gun enthusiast, grew up trained to shoot, and has shot assault rifles, she said. But she underestimated their power, she said. Now, as one of the leaders of the Uvalde Strong for Gun Safety group, she plans to get involved in gun-control advocacy in a way she never has before. She doesn’t want responsible gun owners to lose their access to weapons, but believes guns should be licensed, with increasing training requirements for more powerful weapons.

“There’s a lot of regulation to voting, so I don’t know why we can’t have the same regulation for guns,” Dr. Murillo said.

The Uvalde City Council, county commissioners and school board all recently approved resolutions urging Mr. Abbott to call a special session of the Texas Legislature to raise the age to buy assault weapons.

Uvalde Mayor Don McLaughin, a Republican, called to raise the purchase age of such weapons, telling county Commissioner Ronald Garza, a Democrat who introduced the resolution, “Definite hell yes, I agree with you,” in remarks during a city council meeting.

Mr. Abbott hasn’t announced any special session of the legislature. A spokeswoman for the governor, Renae Eze, cited actions he has taken including allocating money for mental-health and resiliency resources and requesting several school-safety and training reviews. “Governor Abbott has said from day one, all options remain on the table as he continues working with state and local leaders to prevent future tragedies,” she said.

While rural areas of South Texas are more comfortable with guns and supportive of them than many urban areas, they also may be more willing to adjust policies, said Brandon Rottinghaus, a professor of political science at the University of Houston. Texas Latinos, who comprise 68% of the district, are more supportive of gun restrictions than whites, he said. Many in rural areas are more interested in how they actually use guns than about the symbolic polarization the issue has in centers of political power.

“Guns are part of their cultural life, but not their political life,” Mr. Rottinghaus said. “I don’t think they feel threatened when these bills come up. Nothing in [the recently passed] bill would threaten how people in the area use guns.”

Overall, a 52% majority of Texas voters believe gun laws should be stricter, according to a University of Texas poll in June—an opinion shared by nearly all Democrats, a plurality of independents and 28% of Republicans. More than two-thirds of voters, including the majority of Republicans, support changing laws to require background checks for all gun purchases and to raise the age for all gun purchases to 21, the poll found.

Mr. Gonzales, who is running for re-election, said he is open to further changes in gun policy, but said they would have to be changes he didn’t consider an infringement on the Second Amendment.

The congressman’s Democratic opponent, John Lira, is considered a long-shot for the seat, but he said the Uvalde shooting is drawing him new supporters. Mr. Lira is a Marine veteran who has worked at some government agencies in Washington. Contrary to Mr. Gonzales, Mr. Lira supports red-flag laws, which allow authorities to take weapons from someone considered an imminent danger, and he supports licensing and training requirements to carry guns in public. His fundraising, while still low compared with Mr. Gonzales, increased in the weeks after the shooting.

“Schools are the center of the community,” Mr. Lira said. “I think that’s why you’re seeing these shifts, even from stalwart Second Amendment supporters.”

Roy Guerrero, Uvalde’s only pediatrician, testified to Congress that the children killed in the shooting—his patients—came into the hospital nearly decapitated from the AR-15’s rounds. Dr. Guerrero is leading the Uvalde Strong for Gun Safety group and is considering campaigning with Democratic gubernatorial hopeful Beto O’Rourke. Dr. Guerrero said that he has sensed resentment around town toward his gun-control advocacy.

“I stepped up to do this when I didn’t ask for it,” he said. “You didn’t ask for your kids to be killed.”

Write to Elizabeth Findell at


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