By Brad Brooks and Steve Gorman
UVALDE, Texas (Reuters) -A teenage gunman murdered at least 19 children and two teachers after storming into a Texas elementary school on Tuesday, the latest bout of gun-fueled mass killing in the United States and the nation’s worst school shooting in nearly a decade.
The carnage began with the 18-year-old suspect, identified as Salvador Ramos, shooting his own grandmother, who survived, authorities said.
He fled that scene and crashed his car near the Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, a town about 80 miles (130 km) west of San Antonio. There he launched a bloody rampage that ended when he was killed, apparently shot by police.
The motive was not immediately clear.
Law enforcement officers saw the gunman, clad in body armor, emerge from the crashed vehicle carrying a rifle and “engaged” the suspect, who nevertheless managed to charge into the building and open fire, Texas Department of Public Safety (DPS) Sergeant Erick Estrada said on CNN.
Speaking from the White House hours later, a visibly shaken President Joe Biden urged Americans to stand up to the politically powerful gun lobby, which he blamed for blocking enactment of tougher firearms safety laws.
Biden ordered flags flown at half-staff daily until sunset on Saturday in observance of the tragedy.
“As a nation, we have to ask, ‘When in God’s name are we going to stand up to the gun lobby?'” Biden said on national television, suggesting reinstating a U.S. ban on assault-style weapons and other “common sense gun laws.”
Mass shootings in America have frequently led to public protests and calls for stricter background checks on gun sales and other firearm controls common in other countries, but such measures have repeatedly failed in the face of strong Republican-led opposition.
Authorities said the suspect in Tuesday’s killings acted alone. Governor Greg Abbott said that the shooter was apparently killed by police who confronted him at the school, and that two officers were struck by gunfire, though the governor said their injuries were not serious.
After conflicting early accounts of the death toll, Texas public safety officials said on Tuesday night that 19 school children and two teachers had died.
The community, deep in the state’s Hill Country region, has about 16,000 residents, nearly 80% of them Hispanic or Latino, according to U.S. Census data.
‘MY HEART IS BROKEN’
The school’s student body consists of children in the second, third and fourth grades, according to Pete Arredondo, chief of the Uvalde Consolidated Independent School District Police Department. Pupils in those grades would likely have ranged in age from 7 to 10.
“My heart is broken,” school district superintendent Hal Harrell told reporters late in the day, his voice quaking with emotion. “We’re a small community and we need your prayers to get us through this.”
A group of about 40 family members was led out of the Willie de Leon Civic Center at around 11:30 p.m. Some broke down in the parking lot, wailing and clinging to one another as police escorted people to their cars.
P.J. Talavera, who runs a martial arts school in town, was outside the civic center and said his wife’s niece was among the children killed.
Talavera said the town was in a state of “controlled chaos” in the moments just after the shooting, as false rumors spread of other shooters attacking different schools.
“It’s surreal. It’s unbelievable. There is a hollow emptiness inside,” Talavera said.
A mass shooting 10 days earlier claimed 10 lives in Buffalo, New York, in a predominantly Black neighborhood. Authorities have charged an 18-year-old who they said had traveled hundreds of miles to Buffalo and opened fire with an assault-style rifle at a grocery store.
Tuesday’s bloodshed began when the suspect shot his grandmother before going to the school, Texas Department of Public Safety officer Chris Olivarez said on Fox News, a development Abbott mentioned earlier in the day.
“I have no further information about the connection between those two shootings,” the governor said.
University Hospital in San Antonio said on Twitter that it had received two patients from the shooting in Uvalde, a 66-year-old woman and a 10-year-old girl, both listed in critical condition.
Uvalde Memorial Hospital said 15 students from Robb Elementary were treated in its emergency room, with two transferred to San Antonio for further care, while a third patient transfer was pending. It was not immediately clear whether all of those students survived.
A 45-year-old victim grazed by a bullet was also hospitalized at Uvalde Memorial, the hospital said.
Hours after the shooting, police had cordoned off the school with yellow tape. Police cruisers and emergency vehicles were scattered around the perimeter of the school grounds. Uniformed personnel stood in small clusters, some in camouflage carrying semi-automatic weapons.
EPIDEMIC OF GUN VIOLENCE
The rampage was the latest in a series of mass school shootings that have periodically reignited a fierce debate between advocates of tighter gun controls and those who oppose any legislation that could compromise the U.S. Constitutional right of Americans to bear arms.
Tuesday’s shooting was the deadliest at a U.S. school since a gunman killed 26 people, including 20 children, at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut in December 2012. In 2018, a former student at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, killed 17 students and staff.
Firearms became the leading cause of death for U.S. children and adolescents starting in 2020, surpassing motor vehicle accidents, according to a University of Michigan research letter published in the New England Journal of Medicine last month.
The day’s horrors were reflected on the Facebook page of Robb Elementary School, where posts this week showed usual student activities – a field trip to a zoo and a save-the-date reminder for a gifted-and-talented showcase.
But on Tuesday, a note was posted at 11:43 a.m.: “Please know at this time Robb Elementary is under a Lockdown Status due to gunshots in the area. The students and staff are safe in the building.” A second post was more explicit: “There is an active shooter at Robb Elementary. Law enforcement is on site.” Finally, a note was posted advising parents that they could meet their children at the small city’s civic center.
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(Reporting by Brad Brooks and Marco Bello in Uvalde, Texas; Writing and additional reporting by Steve Gorman in Los Angeles; Additional reporting by Maria Caspani and Tyler Clifford in New York; Daniel Trotta in San Diego; Dan Whitcomb and Costas Pitas in Los Angeles; Katie Paul in San Francisco, Sharon Bernstein in Sacramento, Calif.; and Caitlin Webber and Kanishka Singh in Washington; Editing by Grant McCool, Leslie Adler and Howard Goller)