Biden visits Uvalde, a city in mourning

Washington Post photo by Sarah L. Voisin
Aaliyah Morales, 8, draws a heart in remembrance of her soccer teammate, who died in the Uvalde, Texas, shooting. On the right is her sister, Emma, 2.

UVALDE, Texas – President Joe Biden and first lady Jill Biden paid their respects here Sunday amid a sea of flowers, coming face to face with oversize photos of the 19 children and two teachers killed during the massacre at Robb Elementary School.

The first couple stood in silence, reading the names of the victims and touching each portrait, ringed with white roses. Nearby, white crosses staked into the ground outside the school were painted with the names of each of the victims.

Makenna Lee Elrod . . . Jayce Luevanos . . . Nevaeh Bravo . . .

Jill Biden placed her hand gently on some of the photos, as if to pat the children on their shoulders. The president wiped away a tear.

They had traveled to Uvalde on Sunday to follow a familiar ritual after an American massacre: praying, trying to comfort victims’ families and survivors, and meeting with first responders.

Less than a week ago, distraught parents had paced the same grounds of Robb Elementary School as the shooting was unfolding. It became public later that the parents shouted and pleaded with law enforcement officers to let them into the school – to do something to save their children.

In the days since, the president had forcefully condemned the “carnage” of American gun violence, called for stricter gun laws and lamented the loss of life.

On Sunday, though, Biden mourned mostly in silence, attuned to the heavy grief that had settled over the school site and a community in pain.

At one point, Biden embraced Mandy Gutierrez, the principal of Robb Elementary, in front of the brick sign welcoming visitors to campus in English and Spanish. Others who joined the Bidens to pay respects at the memorial included Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, R, Rep. Tony Gonzales, R-Texas, and Uvalde Mayor Don McLaughlin. Some in the crowd booed when they saw the governor and chanted, “Vote him out!”

The White House invited Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, and notified Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, of the president’s visit, a spokesman said, but neither man was with Biden on Sunday.

After the school visit, the first couple attended Mass at Sacred Heart, Uvalde’s only Catholic church, where they were greeted by Archbishop Gustavo García-Siller.

As the Bidens entered the sanctuary and made their way to the front pew, Jill Biden lightly touched the hands of several people seated along the aisle. About 600 people filled the pews. A violinist and a pianist played “Ave Maria” and other inspirational songs before the service started.

“Our hearts are broken,” García-Siller said as the service commenced. He invited children to come to the front of the church and sit on the floor. They were the ones, he told them directly, who would help the community heal.

As the Bidens left the church, another crowd of spectators gathered to watch their departure.

“Do something!” someone in the crowd yelled.

Biden had already reached the presidential limousine. He stood at the open door and replied: “We will.”

The visit to Uvalde was the second by the president in less than two weeks to the site of a mass shooting to comfort families of victims in private and meet with first responders. On May 17, the first couple traveled to Buffalo to grieve with the families of 10 Black people killed at a grocery store by a gunman apparently motivated by racist ideologies.

“Look, I’m not naive. I know tragedy will come again,” Biden had said in Buffalo. But there were things that could be done, he added, to try to prevent shootings.

A few days later, Biden left for a five-day trip to South Korea and Japan. On his 17-hour return flight from Asia, he learned that there had been another mass shooting, this time hundreds of miles away from western New York, at an elementary school in Texas.

“As a nation, we have to ask: When in God’s name are we going to stand up to the gun lobby? When in God’s name will we do what we all know in our gut needs to be done?” Biden said shortly after arriving back in Washington.

“Why? Why are we willing to live with this carnage? Why do we keep letting this happen?” he said. “Where in God’s name is our backbone to have the courage to deal with it and stand up to the lobbies? It’s time to turn this pain into action.”

The Bidens spent most of the afternoon meeting privately with victims’ families and survivors at the Uvalde County Fairplex and then separately with first responders later in the day.

Biden did not plan to make formal remarks on Sunday, and did not directly address the questions or anger apparent as details of a slow law enforcement response during the massacre have emerged. Authorities say officers didn’t breach the classroom and kill the gunman – whom they identified as 18-year-old Salvador Ramos – until more than an hour after he entered the school.

The Justice Department announced Sunday that, at the request of the city’s mayor, it will conduct a review of the law enforcement response to the shooting.

It is routine for authorities to launch reviews after incidents of mass violence. Such reviews often involve an attempt to analyze any potential missteps in the law enforcement response, such as any breakdowns in communications or other issues.

McLaughlin, the Uvalde mayor, said he hoped to see a “fair and balanced report” from the Justice Department.

“These families have a right to know,” he said. “We will get answers and we will get to the bottom of it. I have no words for these families except, ‘I’m so, so sorry.'”

McLaughlin said that he did not attend meetings on Sunday between Biden and the victims’ families, whom he feared may not yet be ready to see their local elected officials.

The first couple’s visit marked the beginning of official remembrances that will stretch for weeks. The first viewing and prayer services will be on Monday for Amerie Jo Garza and Maite Rodriguez, both 10. Services for the other 19 victims will follow in the coming weeks.

At Geraldine Street and Old Carrizo Road, people waited listlessly in the heat on Sunday to leave their own flowers at the memorial site visited by the Bidens. A line of at least 100 people stretched from the police barrier in front of the school.

Many were not from Uvalde. Some had missed seeing the president altogether, obstructed by the law enforcement checkpoints and resulting traffic that choked off large portions of the community on Sunday.

Indalecio Gonzalez III, a 75-year-old from Hondo, Texas, thought he saw the president’s car pass, but he could not be sure. He said he has been distraught since the attack Tuesday at the school.

A Biden supporter, he knows that many of his fellow Texans didn’t vote for the president. But at a time like this, he said, that shouldn’t matter.

“He represents our country, whether we like it or not,” Gonzalez said.