AUSTIN, Texas — When 18-year-old Salvador Ramos burst into a classroom at Robb Elementary on Tuesday and opened fire, he accelerated an already horrific trend: Children became more than twice as likely to die from gun violence than before Governor Greg Abbott (R) took office seven years ago.
The annual number of gun deaths among children 17 and under has risen from 54 in 2015, Abbott’s first year as governor, to 146 in 2020 – the latest year available from the Centers for Disease Control . The number of youth gun deaths increased every year during this period except one. Texas has the distinction of having more child shooting deaths than any other state.
Those numbers, highlighted in an interview with Ari Freilich of the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, threaten to get worse this year, with 19 children dying in a single day at the hands of Ramos.
“Texas has suffered more of the nation’s deadliest mass shootings than any other state,” Freilich said. “They did nothing several times.”
Tuesday’s shooting brought renewed attention to Republicans in Texas, who, faced with a series of mass shootings and escalating gun violence, used their grip on the state government to ease restrictions on firearms.
For most Americans, access to a wide variety of firearms and ammunition is only a short drive from a sporting goods or gun store. But several restrictions now common in other states or blocked in Congress, gun reformers say, could have stopped Uvalde’s shooting before it started — or at least made it less lethal.
Ramos bought two AR-15s and hundreds of .223 rounds in a week in March, Abbott said at a news conference Wednesday. Ramos appeared to buy them legally, passing a standardized nationwide background check administered by the FBI that asks if you have committed a crime, immigrated to the country illegally, or are “an illegal or addicted user of marijuana. or any depressant, stimulant, narcotic or other controlled substance”.
Law enforcement knew of no red flags that could have alerted them before he shot his grandmother in the face and then crashed a car on the way to school, Abbott said. . It was still unclear if Ramos had a juvenile criminal record.
But the shooter would not have been able to purchase these weapons off the shelf if an assault weapons ban had been in place. More modestly, several states ban the sale of semi-automatic rifles to those under 21. Federal law prohibits him from buying a handgun from a store.
And restrictions on magazine capacity would likely have limited bloodshed, reformers say.
Although mass shootings represent only a tiny fraction of homicides in any given year, mass shooters tend to seek out semi-automatic AR type rifles. to emulate the mass shooters that came before them, according to James Denley, co-author of “The Violence Project.” The weapons’ accuracy, portability, and large magazine capacity make them capable of killing people effectively.
“Mass shooters study other mass shooters,” Densley said. “So there is a scenario, if you will, for what mass shootings look like. The use of these weapons is part of the cultural script.
Proposals like these are familiar to heads of state. After the 2019 mass shooting at an El Paso Wal-Mart left 23 dead, the state legislature heard from experts and law enforcement during a Gun Safety Commission that Abbott convened. They debated a long list of ideas tossed around the country – restrictions on assault weapons, red flag laws and coverage of gaps in background checks.
But when the legislature reconvened, Abbott — emboldened by Republicans’ surprisingly strong performance in the 2020 election — instead relaxed gun regulations, signing legislation last year allowing people to carry concealed handguns without a permit.
Reform critics, including several prominent Texas Republicans, often point out that criminals will circumvent the new restrictions because they are breaking the law.
“You see Democrats and a lot of people in the media whose immediate solution is to try to curtail the constitutional rights of law-abiding citizens — it’s not working, it’s not effective,” said Sen. Ted Cruz. (R-Texas) on the day of shooting. “We know what prevents crime, which is prosecuting criminals, fugitives and people with serious mental illness, arresting them, prosecuting them when they try to illegally purchase firearms.”
Abbott also said the government should focus less on age restrictions or access and more on resolving mental health problems before people turn to violence. “Anyone who shoots someone else has a mental health issue, period,” Abbott said.
So far, Abbott’s strategy hasn’t worked. He presided over rising child gun deaths, increased gun violence in general, and many of the nation’s deadliest mass shootings – Sutherland Springs, Santa Fe High School, El Paso and now Uvalde.
“As a society, we need to find a way to balance the fun people might have in shooting military-style guns, and the carnage we know will continue to happen as long as we make military-style guns so easily accessible to the general public,” Freilich said. “I’m still hopeful, but we’ve been here before.