AUSTIN, Texas (CN) — Families of the victims of the May shooting at Robb Elementary in Uvalde, Texas, gathered at the Texas Capitol in an emotional scene Tuesday evening to honor the 19 children and two teachers killed.
The families gathered both in remembrance on "Dia de Los Muertos," the Day of the Dead, and to reiterate months-long pleas for gun reform. The event was organized by the Mexican American Legislative Caucus of the Texas Legislature. In addition to the vigil in Austin, organizers held identical events in cities across the state including Houston, Dallas and San Antonio.
“We do not have our kids and that is why we are here, to fight for them and to fight for justice. That is why we are here all the way from Uvalde,” said Dora Mendoza, the grandmother of 10-year-old Amerie Jo Garza, who was killed in the shooting.
Mendoza said in an interview that she has made the nearly three-hour drive from Uvalde to Austin several times, all with the hope that changes will be made to the state's gun laws.
“We just hope that everything changes, you don’t need those out here. I think that they should be used by law enforcement and military, not here,” said Mendoza speaking about AR-15-style rifles like the one used by the shooter, 18-year-old Salvador Ramos.
Since the shooting, many families who lost loved ones have made it their duty to try to prevent another act of mass violence such as the one they experienced from happening again. Their mission led them to call on Texas Governor Greg Abbott and the Texas Legislature to raise the age to purchase an AR-15-style rifle from 18 to 21. In the lead-up to the shooting on May 24, the shooter legally purchased two rifles and hundreds of rounds of ammunition days after his 18th birthday.
Mendoza said that it felt like an insult for the governor not to take action, especially since shootings similar to the one in Uvalde have continued to happen across the nation. Vincent Salazar shared Mendoza’s frustration. Holding a picture of his daughter, 11-year-old Layla Marie Salazar, he said that what happened in his town cannot continue to occur.
“I’m not sure where this country went astray as far as gun rights and those being more important than children, but that has got to stop,” said Salazar.
On the steps of the Capitol building, each family spoke about the child they lost, recalling their love of video games, sports and spending time with family. In front of the podium where parents spoke, an "ofrenda," or altar, sat adorned with photos of the children, decorative skulls, marigolds and food, as is custom for remembering deceased loved ones on the Day of the Dead.
Speaking before a crowd, 17-year-old Jazmin Cazares said that the age to purchase such weapons should be raised to 21 in honor of the 21 lives lost during the shooting, including her little sister Jackie.
“Some of us have spoken to the governor directly and he says he will not honor our request to raise the age to buy an AR-15. He believed he can ignore us after failing Sutherland Springs, Santa Fe, El Paso, Odessa and now Uvalde. Greg Abbott will continue to fail us,” said Cazares.
A poll released in October by The Texas Politics Project found that 55% of Texans believed that gun laws should be more strict. Despite the appetite among a majority of Texans to see gun reform, Republican leaders in the state, including Abbott, have said that such change is impossible.
Abbott has claimed that legislation raising the minimum age to purchase such weapons could not pass and would be unconstitutional.
“It is clear that the gun control law that they are seeking in Uvalde — as much as they may want it — has already been ruled as unconstitutional,” said Abbott at a campaign event in Allen, Texas.
Running parallel to their calls for changes to gun laws in Texas, each parent asked Texans to vote out lawmakers, including Abbott, who refuse to budge on gun reform.
Abbott’s gubernatorial opponent, former El Paso Congressman and once presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke has gained the support of some Uvalde parents. Many of the parents who spoke Tuesday said the only way to achieve real change is to vote out the incumbent Republican and replace him with O’Rourke. Some parents have voiced their support for O'Rourke in an advertisement that echoes many of the sentiments shared at Tuesday’s event.
They took that message, as well as their altar, across the street from the Capitol building to the governor's mansion. The procession of victims' families, activists and people there to pay respects laid down vibrant marigold flowers as a mariachi band played songs. Tears streamed from the faces of parents and other participants.
The fallout from the police response to the shooting has led to the firing of Uvalde ISD police Chief Pete Arredondo, as well as the indefinite suspension of the entire school police force. Calls have also been made for the resignation of Texas Department of Public Safety director Steve McCraw. Critics say his agency was also among those who failed to act to subdue the shooter. McCraw has said he would step down if his agency failed the families but has maintained that no such failure has occurred.
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