AUSTIN, Texas – When Salvador Ramos, 18, barged into a classroom at Robb Elementary on Tuesday and opened fire, he accelerated an already horrifying trend: Children have become more than twice as likely to die from gun violence as they were before Gov. Greg Abbott (R) took office seven years ago.
The annual number of gun deaths for children 17 and under jumped from 54 in 2015, Abbott’s first year as governor, to 146 in 2020 — the latest year available from the Centers for Disease Control. Youth gun deaths rose every year over that period, except one. Texas has the distinction of having more children die by gunshot than any other state.
Those figures, 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 Ramos’ hands.
“Texas has suffered more of the nation’s deadliest mass shootings than any other state,” Freilich said. “They’ve repeatedly done nothing.”
Tuesday’s shooting has once again cast attention on Texas Republicans, who, facing a string of mass shootings and rising gun violence, have used their stranglehold over state government to loosen gun restrictions.
For most Americans, access to a wide array of firearms and ammunition lies only a short trip away to a sporting goods or gun store. But several restrictions now common in other states or stalled in Congress, gun reformers say, could have impeded the Uvalde shooting before it started — or at least made it less lethal.
Ramos bought two AR-15s and hundreds of rounds of .223 ammunition over the course of a week in March, Abbott said at a press conference Wednesday. Ramos appeared to purchase them legally, passing a standardized national background check administered by the FBI that asks if you’ve committed a felony, if you immigrated to the country illegally or if you are “an unlawful user of, or addicted to, marijuana or any depressant, stimulant, narcotic drug, or any other controlled substance.”
Law enforcement did not know of any red flags that might have alerted them before he shot his grandmother in the face, then crashed a car on his way to the school, Abbott said. It remained unclear whether Ramos had a juvenile record.
But the shooter wouldn’t have been able to buy those guns off the shelf if an assault weapons ban were in place. More modestly, several states bar the sale of semi-automatic rifles to those under 21. Federal law prohibited him from buying a handgun at a store.
And restrictions on magazine capacity likely would have limited the bloodshed, reformers say.
Though mass shootings account for a tiny fraction of homicides in any given year, mass shooters tend to seek out AR-style semi-automatic rifles to emulate mass shooters who came before them, according to James Densley, co-author of ”The Violence Project.” The weapons’ accuracy, portability and high magazine capacity make them capable of killing people efficiently.
“Mass shooters study other mass shooters,” Densley said. “So there is a script, if you will, for what mass shootings look like. Use of those weapons is part of the cultural script.”
Proposals like these are familiar to state leaders. After the 2019 mass shooting at an El Paso Wal-Mart left 23 people dead, the state legislature heard from experts and law enforcement at a Gun Safety Commission that Abbott convened. They debated a long list of ideas floated across the country – assault weapons restrictions, red flag laws, and covering loopholes in background checks.
But when the legislature met again, Abbott — emboldened by Republicans’ unexpectedly strong state performance in the 2020 election — instead loosened gun regulations, signing a law last year allowing people to carry concealed handguns without a permit.
Critics of reform, including several prominent Texas Republicans, often point out that criminals will skirt new restrictions, since breaking the law is what they do.
“You see Democrats and a lot of folks in the media whose immediate solution is to try to restrict the constitutional rights of law-abiding citizens – that doesn’t work, it’s not effective,” Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) said the day of the shooting. “We know what does prevent crime, which is going after felons and fugitives and those with serious mental illness, arresting them, prosecuting them when they try to illegally buy firearms.”
Abbott likewise said the government should focus less on age restrictions or access than on addressing mental health problems before people turn to violence. “Anybody who shoots somebody else has a mental health challenge, period,” Abbott said.
So far, Abbott’s strategy hasn’t worked. He’s presided over rising child gun deaths, rising gun violence overall, and several of the country’s deadliest mass shootings — Sutherland Springs, Santa Fe High School, El Paso, and now Uvalde.
“As a society, we have to find a way to balance the enjoyment people might have in firing military style weapons, and the carnage we know will continue to happen as long as we make military-style weapons so readily available to the general public,” Freilich said. “I remain hopeful. But we’ve been here before.”