Neil Meyer, a retired lawyer, is a fifth-generation Texan. He now lives in Bethesda.
First, you would be challenged to find a more heavily armed place in the United States than Uvalde. It’s a town where the love of guns overwhelms any notion of common-sense regulations, and the minority White ruling class places its right-wing Republican ideology above the safety of its most vulnerable citizens — its impoverished and its children, most of whom are Hispanic.
Second, at news of the shooting, I was struck to hear the words “Robb Elementary” because I knew of its centrality to the struggle in Uvalde over the past half-century to desegregate its schools. Robb sits in the city’s southwest quadrant. So I knew the victims of the shooting would largely be Hispanic. They have been locked into that school for decades.
In Uvalde, simply put, everything north of Highway 90 is primarily White Republican, and everything south is mostly Hispanic Democrat. The city has about 15,000 residents; more than 80 percent identify as Hispanic or Latino.
Most of Uvalde’s political leadership and the heads of the largest employers are White. At the center of town on the courthouse grounds, you’ll find a monument to Jefferson Davis, the Confederate president — installed when the Ku Klux Klan dominated Uvalde politics. (Some of us tried to get the monument removed after the murder of George Floyd, but that’s a story for another day.)
When I heard reports about the shooter, a young Latino, I winced at the reflexive disclaimer that he wasn’t an “illegal immigrant.” It wasn’t surprising to learn that he was bullied for a speech impediment, may have come from a broken family struggling with drug use and had experienced problems in school. Drug use plagues the city, and the courts struggle under the weight of young people’s encounters with the legal system. About 1 in 3 Uvalde children live in poverty.
The killer allegedly bought his guns at the Oasis Outback, a popular lunch spot for wealthier Uvaldeans, known for its large buffet, hunting supplies and gun shop. On most days you’ll also see groups of Border Patrol agents and local law enforcement there. It’s a monthly meeting place for groups such as the Uvalde County Republican Women, whose Facebook page includes posts decrying “the border invasion.”
The Oasis reflects the establishment’s deep cultural reverence for guns, hunting and the Wild West mythology. I wasn’t surprised that an 18-year-old could walk in and easily buy tactical weapons without anyone being concerned.
I wasn’t surprised to see the Republican panel of politicians at a news conference the day after the shooting, almost all White and in top positions of power in the community and the state, taking the lead. In Uvalde, the custodians of order — the chief of police, the sheriff, the head of the school district police — are Hispanic, but here they were largely silent. Unsurprisingly, they now bear the primary blame for the disastrous response at the school.
Finally, I wasn’t surprised to see victims being flown to San Antonio for treatment. The Uvalde hospital was converted in recent years to a critical access facility, limiting its number of beds. The hospital benefited financially, but many residents seeking health care must now travel to distant locations. The negative impact on a community with high rates of poverty — families who can’t afford this burden — is obvious.
President Biden and the first lady visited Uvalde on Sunday to offer comfort to the families of victims at Robb. But Uvalde and other towns like it need more than comfort — we need to know that American leaders will take the overdue steps necessary to keep these communities safe.
Let’s start with banning assault weapons and limiting young people’s access to firearms. The freedom to own weapons that facilitate mass murder is less important than the safety of our children, they’re not needed for hunting, and they don’t need to be sold to 18-year-olds. Most Americans and many Texans agree, despite the rhetoric of Republican leaders.
Let’s also recognize that Uvalde has a sufficiently large law enforcement presence, between the police department, the sheriff’s office, the Texas Department of Public Safety, the Texas Rangers, Customs and Border Protection and the FBI. We won’t succeed in creating “hardened targets” by arming teachers and other civilians.
Finally, the social conditions that gave birth to deadly violence and the killer’s mental condition can be addressed through our support of community organizations, health-care systems and schools — by supplying resources and legal avenues to identify and deal with emerging threats such as the one posed by this young man.
The deaths at Robb Elementary were predictable and avoidable. Uvalde, the state of Texas and the United States of America failed the children and teachers who died there. We owe it to their memory and to current and future generations to avoid yet another, similar tragedy.