The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Police action in Uvalde was shameful. Our inaction would be more so.

In the days after the Texas shooting, Virginia students asked, “Are we next?” The truthful answer: Maybe.

Students from McLean High School participate in a walkout on May 26. (Valerie Plesch/For The Washington Post)
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By now, you might have seen the video.

Not the one of the Uvalde fourth-grader who described “hiding hard” and then hearing a classmate, at the prompting of an officer, yell for help before getting shot.

Not the one of the dad who spoke of buying his daughter a phone for her 10th birthday and learning she tried to use it to call 911 in her final moments.

Not the one of the 10-year-old who talked about how she survived and then later realized “all the people I knew were dead.”

Those are all heartbreaking and haunting. They were also created after those children had already been failed. The video that keeps playing on loop in my mind is one that shows the moments before, during and after shots were fired in the direction of a group of children. That video was taken on the same day as the Uvalde shooting and leaves the viewer wanting to reach in and tell those kids, “Run!”

The footage — which was captured by a security camera and posted on social media and, in edited form, by news outlets — shows five young children playing on a sidewalk in a Northern Virginia neighborhood. Across the parking lot, four people in dark clothing can be seen walking. One of the kids says, “Who are they?” Another child responds, “A bad guy! You remember?” Someone says, “The gangsters.”

One child ducks behind a parked car but then, a moment later, stands up as the other kids watch those figures. (It’s at that moment you will want to yell at those kids to run). The children stand there, holding play items in their hands that they are waiting to use, when a silver sedan drives by, backs into a parking space and heads in the direction it just came from. The sound of gunfire comes next. Bam. Bam. Bam. Bam.

Three children sprint out of frame. One child drops to the ground, letting go of a basketball that rolls away. Another child stays with her.

“Mommy! Mommy! Mommy! Mommy!” the girl on the ground can be heard screaming. “I can’t feel my leg. I can’t feel my legs. I can’t feel my legs.”

Prince William County police later said that was a 9-year-old girl and she was not the intended target of the bullet that hit her. The sedan was. Police said the girl was flown to a hospital with life-threatening injuries and remained there in critical condition. On Thursday, they released a statement, announcing they had arrested a 15-year-old in connection with the shooting.

When mass-casualty events happen, it’s easy for shootings with singular horrors to go unseen. After all, we have only so much emotional energy to give. But right now, we need to be looking over there and over here and all around at the way guns are claiming our kids.

I was a kid when a classmate was shot and killed. That trauma lasts.

Street shootings. School shootings. Birthday party shootings. They might differ in detail, but they all follow the same plot: A person who should’ve never been allowed access to a gun gets one (or an arsenal of them) with ease. Lives get snatched. Grief and outrage follow. And lawmakers and the public don’t do enough to keep the next one from happening.

What is so chilling about that Northern Virginia video is that those children were bracing. Their words and body language showed they knew they might not be safe.

Similarly, after a shooting occurred near Nationals Park in July, an 8-year-old heard “Get down” and knew what to do. She explained to a reporter afterward, “It was my second shooting, so I was kinda prepared, because I always am expecting something to happen.”

A girl’s reaction to the Nationals Park shooting made the world look at D.C.’s gun violence problem

I told you about her in a different column after her words were translated into Spanish, French and other languages by media outlets across the world. That’s how uniquely American our out-of-control gun problem is — a girl’s comment about expecting gunfire makes the news in other countries. One publication ran the article under the headline, “DC Shootout: 8-year-old Says ‘I Was Kind Of Prepared’ For It, Leaves Twitter Terrified.”

Young people right now are begging us to protect them from gun violence. In the days since the Uvalde shooting, which left 19 students and two teachers dead, students have tried to make themselves heard. They have given interviews about their trauma. They have shared their fears through social media. They have marched out of their schools. On Thursday, as part of a nationwide demonstration, about 200 students walked out of McLean High School in Fairfax County. At one point, they chanted together, “Are we next?”

Are we next? We should have a better answer to give them besides the only truthful one: Maybe.

When I was younger and trying to make sense of child deaths, I came across a poem by Bill Knott. It was one sentence long and, to me, captured succinctly the gutting nature of those losses. It read: “The only response to a child’s grave is to lie down before it and play dead.”

At different times in my life, including after personal losses and while writing about young people who died senselessly, those words have come back to me. They did again after the shooting in Uvalde, which is not far from my hometown of San Antonio. This time, though, they hit differently. This time, it occurred to me that lying down and playing dead felt no different than what we’ve done time and again after shootings involving children. This time, lying down and playing dead seemed no more useful than offering thoughts and prayers.

What we need to do is get up and make sure lawmakers know we’re done with their prioritizing guns over children. What we need to do is invest in the services, programs and people who can keep potential shooters from becoming murderers. What we need to do is hold law enforcement officials accountable.

A Peace Corps worker was on a date in D.C. with his wife. Then came a stray bullet.

Details that have emerged of the police response in Uvalde show that law enforcement officials failed those children, teachers and their families in horrific ways. Officers not only held back parents desperate to rescue their children, they waited outside those classrooms for nearly 50 minutes, prioritizing their safety over the lives of students who were being tortured and killed. They did that even as children repeatedly called 911 and asked for help. During a call made more than an hour after the gunman entered the school, a child pleaded, “Please send police now.”

The actions of the police that day were shameful. That’s clear. But if the rest of us do nothing to make it harder for a person to shoot at children in schools — or on sidewalks — our inaction will be more so. We know that right now children are bracing for the next round of gunfire. We know that students are asking “Are we next?” and the answer will be “Yes” for some of them.

When it comes to gun violence, the only response to a child’s grave is to do whatever it takes to make sure we aren’t digging more.