UVALDE, Texas (Nexstar) — In the town square of Uvalde, all the signs of holiday cheer are present in decorations around the county courthouse. But with a closer look, there are obvious signs that something is painfully missing — 21 lives.
Instead of celebrating with their families this year, the 19 children and two teachers killed in the May 24 mass shooting are represented by angel figurines under the county courthouse Christmas tree.
Jesse Rizo, uncle of 9-year-old victim Jackie Cazares, said the holiday will be excruciatingly painful for their family.
“That gift that you normally would buy, they’re not going to be able to buy that gift. Because there’s nobody there. So what do you do?” he said. “You go celebrate at their sacred ground, which is a cemetery, you know. That’s painful. That’s real.”
As the Uvalde families mark their first Christmas without their loved ones, their fight for answers and accountability for response to the shooting is still ongoing, seven months later. Now, they are also turning to the upcoming legislative session, with hope for reform also fueling them to keep fighting for their loved ones.
Berlinda Arreola, grandmother to 10-year-old victim Amerie Jo Garza, said her granddaughter’s spirit has been one of the only things fueling her to keep fighting.
“Amerie is keeping us all going, as well as the other the other victims. We’ve all become a big family,” she said. “This is what we’re fighting for. This is what we’re doing and we’re not going to stop until we — until everybody’s held accountable.”
Her wish list for Texas lawmakers includes a ban on AR-15 style weapons, like the one used by the 18-year-old gunman who killed her granddaughter. She acknowledges it’s “a stretch” in Texas, but hopes the Republican-controlled legislature will at least consider one thing many families are calling for — raising the age required to purchase such weapons from 18 to 21, a policy that would have stopped the Uvalde gunman from legally purchasing his weapon.
“We will settle for raising the age limit. That will be a step in the right direction. At least we’ll know that they’re listening and trying to make some changes,” she said. “We’re going on deaf ears so we’re hoping that someone is listening.”
State Sen. Roland Gutierrez, D-San Antonio, said he is listening.
The Democrat’s district includes Uvalde, and he has been one of the leading voices in the legislature since the shooting, pushing for accountability and transparency and often calling attention to the Department of Public Safety’s role in the failed law enforcement response.
Nearly 400 officers responded to the scene in an uncoordinated and chaotic response, characterized by miscommunication of a barricaded subject instead of an active shooter. Many officers were confused about who was in command. It would take law enforcement 77 minutes to breach the classrooms and take down the gunman, despite 911 calls from children inside begging for help and indicating there were victims still barely alive.
“There is no greater issue in this state,” Gutierrez said.
Already, he has filed three bills in direct response to the Robb Elementary school shooting, and plans to introduce more legislation. One bill would answer many of the families’ calls by raising the age limit on certain gun purchases, another is a compensation package for the families to make up for “gross negligence” by the responding law enforcement agencies. Another would create extreme risk protection orders and increase background checks for young people purchasing guns.
Additionally, Rep. Joe Moody, D-El Paso, filed legislation that would allow local sheriffs to get notified if multiple guns or magazines are purchased in a short period of time. Another bill by Moody would open up records to the public after mass shootings — a problem that has elongated the community’s search for answers, as the Uvalde County District Attorney continues to withhold information and records from that day.
Following previous mass shootings in Texas, the state legislature has moved to expand gun laws rather than restrict them. Gutierrez will likely face an uphill battle on such proposals, facing the iron fist of the Senate’s president, conservative Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick. The Republican has been adamant in his belief that gun control is not a solution to prevent another Uvalde.
“You’re always gonna have, again, no matter what you do, there’s going to be someone to find another area that’s vulnerable,” Patrick said after the shooting during a press conference with state leaders in Uvalde. “We need to do more in the area of mental health.”
Additionally, Gov. Greg Abbott has suggested that age limits are completely out of the question. He has pointed to a Texas federal court decision related to a state law that previously banned 18 to 20-year-olds in Texas from carrying handguns. U.S. District Judge Mark Pittman said the law was unconstitutional, since the Second Amendment does not mention age limitations.
Gutierrez points to Florida, a Republican state, in his hope for getting some of these measures accomplished in the 88th legislative session. He also said he’s actively having conversations with members on both sides of the aisle about what they can do.
“Florida took 23 days after the Parkland shooting to have extreme risk protective orders, to raise the minimum age limit to 21. This was in a Republican-controlled body,” he said. “We can do all of those things and more that are just good common safety gun solutions.”
A June 2022 UT/Texas Politics Project poll found 70% of Texans support raising the age limit for buying a firearm. Broken up by party, however, it showed a large disparity in that support — with 81% of Democrats saying they strongly raising the age limit. Forty-one percent of independents also strongly support doing so, as well as 31% of Republicans.
“There are many of my colleagues in the Senate who have suggested that raising the age limit is not out of the question,” Gutierrez said. “And so it’s my hope that their constituents watch this and start asking questions and making demands. That’s how this process works.”
Arreola said she and other families are “stuck on May 24,” but getting involved in change is one thing she thinks could help them all move forward.