Uvalde, Texas, US – One year ago, an 18-year-old man brandishing an AR-15-style rifle walked into Robb Elementary School in the southern Texas town of Uvalde.
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A year after the killings, a crushing void lingers in the hearts and lives of the victims’ parents, siblings, friends and many residents of this largely Latino, United States town of about 15,000 people.
On Wednesday at the Uvalde Memorial Park Amphitheater, victims’ loved ones held a candlelight vigil to honour the fallen. Hundreds of people attended the observance. Many of the victims’ families wore shirts with photos of their dead family members. Some prayed. Some sang. Some cried.
For some, it seems as if they spent the entire year crying.
In addition to tears, there was anger and frustration over what many view as a lack of accountability for the botched response to the shooting and legislators’ failure to pass gun laws aimed at preventing another mass shooting.
Berlinda Arreola, the 50-year-old grandmother of Amerie Jo Garza, a 10-year-old victim, told Al Jazeera that anger and frustration at her granddaughter’s death spurred her to help start the anti-gun violence organisation Lives Robbed.
Arreola said other residents like her have attempted to fill the void left by the tragedy by becoming activists for school safety, law enforcement accountability and “common-sense gun laws.”
“My heart broke for the families in Sandy Hook [a school where a 20-year-old man shot and killed 26 people, most of them six-year-olds, in 2012] but I didn’t get involved like I should have,” Arreola said. “We need people to get involved, to vote, and to push politicians for better laws.”
Arreola and others have made the three-hour trek to the state Capitol in Austin several times to speak to legislators about gun laws. Some have travelled to Washington, DC to march for a ban on assault-style weapons. Some have testified before a US Congressional committee. But a year after her granddaughter was senselessly murdered, Arreola questions how much progress has been made.
“It’s just so frustrating,” she said. “A year has passed and not much has changed.”
“I’m angry. We’re angry.”
‘We need real accountability’
Uvalde resident Mike Brown stood on the street corner across from the Uvalde town square on Wednesday afternoon. The 41-year-old held a sign that read “Prosecute Pete Arredondo”.
Brown and his children knew several of the victims, he said, and he is still angry at law enforcement, especially former Uvalde school district police chief Pete Arredondo.
Arredondo was one of the first officers to arrive on the scene during the shooting. While Arredondo has defended his response to the event, he has been widely criticised for not quickly confronting the attacker.
Three months after the killings, the Uvalde school district fired Arredondo but he has not faced legal consequences.
“Pete Arredondo didn’t fulfil his duty,” Brown said. “I know he got fired but we need real accountability.”
A 77-page report from a Texas House of Representatives committee in July 2022 concluded that Arredondo made “a terrible, tragic mistake” by treating the attacker as a “barricaded subject” rather than an “active shooter”.
The report detailed how hundreds of local, state and federal law enforcement officials descended on Robb Elementary but waited an unacceptably long period of time before they breached the classroom where the shooter was and confronted him.
“They failed to prioritize saving the lives of innocent victims over their own safety,” the report stated.
Several months after the shooting, Texas Department of Public Safety Director Steve McCraw said he would resign if the officers under his command had any culpability. McCraw had previously blamed the sluggish response on Arredondo.
The department would eventually fire two officers over the botched police response, but McCraw has declined to resign.
“McCraw said he would resign and hasn’t,” Arreola said. “We want justice and accountability for all law enforcement involved.”
Stricter gun laws
When Brett Cross testified in front of a Texas House of Representatives committee in April 2023, he was wearing a shirt with an upside-down US flag and the slogan “One Nation Under Gun Violence”. Cross was the uncle and legal guardian of Uziyah Garcia, a 10-year-old Uvalde victim.
Cross travelled to the Capitol to testify in support of legislation that would raise the minimum age to buy certain semi-automatic weapons from 18 to 21. Under the current law, 18-year-olds can buy AR-15-style rifles without a permit in Texas.
After the Uvalde shooting, many Republican politicians in Texas expressed horror and offered thoughts and prayers for the victims’ families, but they bristled at any talk of stricter gun laws.
“Your thoughts and prayers didn’t stop an 18-year-old from purchasing two high-powered semi-automatic rifles,” Cross told legislators.
“Your thoughts and prayers are empty. Legislation is not,” Cross said.
The legislation that would raise the minimum age to buy semi-automatic weapons has yet to receive a vote on the floor of the Texas House and appears to have failed, says Nicole Golden, the executive director of Texas Gun Sense, a bipartisan anti-gun-violence non-profit organisation.
“We’re disappointed that legislation that would stop another mass shooting wasn’t passed,” Golden said, “but the survivors from Uvalde did all they could”.
“They’ve had a significant impact both inside and outside the [Capitol]” Golden said. “Public sentiment has shifted because of them.”
The failure of the legislature to pass stricter gun laws upsets Arreola but she remains absolute and says she and others will continue the fight for justice and accountability.
“We’re not going away,” Arreola said. “We’re not going to stop.”