The Austin Chronicle

Point Austin: The Never-Ending Story

By Michael King, February 20, 2024, 3:20pm, Newsdesk


If you hope to wedge a mass shooting into U.S. national headlines, it helps if the massacre coincides with a football championship celebration. If you consider that an exaggeration, I invite you to spend an hour perusing the Gun Violence Archive, the ongoing, nonprofit, heroic effort to catalog all the gun violence that takes place on any given day in America. As of Feb. 20, the Archive recorded 55 “mass shootings” since Jan. 1 (defined, per FBI standards, as incidents including at least four people shot or killed, not including the shooter), and among those, eight “mass murders”: four or more people killed.

A line-by-line count of those 55 shootings since Jan. 1 reflected 93 people dead, and untold numbers wounded. By the time you read this, there will certainly be more mass shootings and more dead. The mass shootings, of course, are only a bloody drop in the bucket. As of Feb. 20, the GVA reported that overall gun deaths (homicide, murder, unintentional, defensive), for a little less than two months of 2024 – came to 2,201.

That’s the drip, drip, dripping blood of daily life in the U.S.A. In media terms, most of these deaths are local, one-day stories. It takes a victory parade shoot-out, during which two young idiots with guns shoot blindly at each other, killing one person and wounding dozens more, before the story garners national headlines.

In case you’re wondering also about the proverbial “Good Guys with Guns” – there were some 800 police officers on hand at the Kansas City Chiefs’ victory parade. At least one of the teenage gunmen was instead subdued by unarmed bystanders; the dead and wounded had already fallen. One person dead, nearly two dozen others wounded, mostly children attending the parade. The Archive records the count.

Failure at Uvalde

In the absence of a sports parade, an impressive number of casualties can also garner a few headlines, at least until it’s overshadowed by the next mass homicide. So it was at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, site of the May 24, 2022, slaughter of 19 schoolchildren, two teachers, and the eventual police killing of their murderer.

Last month, the U.S. Department of Justice released its “Critical Incident Report” on the Uvalde massacre. The full report is a repetitive and mind-numbing 575 pages. Even the less daunting executive summary is difficult to endure, because of its inevitably dismal contents and its more dispiriting conclusion: that the administrative and law enforcement response to the attack on the school was, overall, an abject failure.

The DOJ report is thorough in the way that only broad, years-consuming, bureaucratic hindsight can be, but it largely confirms what was reflected in earlier reviews by the state Department of Public Safety and the Texas House of Representatives (both preceded by dishonest local and state official face-saving). The DOJ reports that despite the apparently rapid initial response from local officers, followed by a massive conglomeration of nearly 400 responders from 24 different law enforcement agencies – “Good Guys” of every level and variety – no one took charge, except to justify reasons for delay. After an initial, tentative, timid, and failed attempt to confront the shooter, for nearly an hour-and-a-half (77 minutes), none of those hundreds of officers was willing to risk breaching the classroom and directly face the gunman, who could be heard intermittently shooting more victims.

Officers later spoke frankly of fearing to face directly an “assault rifle,” the readily available weapon of choice for mass shooters. There was talk of using a sniper at the classroom windows, but the closed blinds made that impossible. No one among the hundreds of officers apparently considered creating a diversion at those windows to enable officers to charge the doorway opposite. As children and teachers phoned or cried out for help, the hundreds of armed lawmen declined to share the danger with 9- and 10-year-old children and their teachers, who died while their would-be protectors failed to act.

Remembering the Murdered

All of this debacle is recounted in exhaustive, repetitive detail in the DOJ report, although in bland committee language that blunts the report’s impact. “In summary,” the report concludes, “the response to the May 24, 2022, mass casualty incident at Robb Elementary School was a failure.” The investigators found that instead of responding to what was in fact an “active shooter” situation (with people still at immediate risk), the assembled law enforcers responded as though they were surrounding a “barricaded subject,” a much lesser emergency.

That conclusion is understandable, if bloodless – even misleading. What happened at Uvalde wasn’t a category error. Throughout the event, there were failures of leadership, of inaction, of communication, of coordination, of care for families, of triage, and even of such simple standards as respect for a crime scene. Immediately afterward, some officers wandered through the bloody classrooms while medical and forensic personnel were trying to identify evidence and determine what had happened. Two years later, bereaved parents have reported they have been subject to continuing harassment by local police angry at public criticism.

The DOJ report is heavy on administrative detail, light on necessary outrage. The most impactful passages are in fact the brief profiles of the dead, accompanied by photographs of the personal, commissioned murals that now distinguish Uvalde’s buildings as permanent memorials for the victims.

A brief selection from those profiles:

Nevaeh Alyssa Bravo, 10, is remembered as a little girl who always put a smile on everyone’s face. Her name is Heaven spelled backwards.” “Jacklyn ‘Jackie’ Cazares, 9, was very proud of her new white dress as she showed it off in front of her family when celebrating her First Communion a week before she passed. … Her family remembers her as peaceful, loving, affectionate, and compassionate.” “Makenna Lee Elrod, 10, was beautiful, funny, intelligent, and amazing. … It was often said that her smile would light up the room.” “José Flores Jr., 10, was fondly known as Josecito and Baby José; he loved cars and sports, especially baseball. … Family and friends say they will always remember his big heart, and that he was in a perpetual good mood and always said hello to everybody.”

And so on, remembering 19 schoolchildren and two teachers, lives brutally cut short by a former student, a disturbed 18-year-old, who bought military combat guns as soon as he was legally able, in order to kill children helpless to defend themselves.

The Robb Elementary School children and teachers were hardly the first victims of this ongoing national carnage, nor will they be the last. The response of state officials has been entirely predictable but still disgraceful: furrowed brows, thoughts and prayers, defensive rationalizations, unearned praise for “first responders,” and nothing more – except to make it easier to buy guns and to carry them without training in public places, and to shoot to kill at the slightest provocation, or no provocation at all. More children will die – in Texas, in Kansas City, in Florida, in Colorado … wherever the guns are sold.

Here in Texas, our state officials are undoubtedly occupied with more urgent priorities than taking rational steps to reduce gun violence and reckless, unlimited access to guns. In the service of national political vendettas, there are desperate, hungry people at the Texas border to be demonized as ideological enemies, and even more children to be drowned in the Rio Grande.

Copyright © 2024 Austin Chronicle Corporation. All rights reserved.