By ZEKE MILLER and ELLIOT SPAGAT
UVALDE, Texas (AP) — President Joe Biden and first lady Jill Biden are hoping to console a city stricken by grief and anger when they meet with families affected by the mass shooting at a Texas elementary school that killed 19 students and two teachers.
The visit to Uvalde on Sunday is Biden’s second trip in as many weeks to comfort a community in mourning after staggering loss. On May 17, he was in Buffalo, New York, to meet with victims’ families and condemn white supremacy after a shooter espousing the racist “replacement theory” killed 10 Black people at a supermarket.
The shootings in Texas and New York and their aftermath have put a spotlight on the nation’s entrenched divisions and its inability to forge consensus on actions to reduce gun violence.
“Evil came to that elementary school classroom in Texas, to that grocery store in New York, to far too many places where innocents have died,” Biden said Saturday in a commencement address at the University of Delaware. “We have to stand stronger. We must stand stronger. We cannot outlaw tragedy, I know, but we can make America safer.”
Biden was to visit the makeshift memorial outside Robb Elementary School before attending Mass at a local Catholic church. He was also scheduled to meet with family members at a community center and then with first responders at the local airport before returning to Washington, the White House said. He was not expected to deliver formal remarks.
Mckinzie Hinojosa, whose cousin Eliahana Torres was killed Tuesday, said she respected Biden’s decision to mourn with the people of Uvalde.
“It’s more than mourning,” she said. “We want change. We want action. It continues to be something that happens over and over and over. A mass shooting happens. It’s on the news. People cry. Then it’s gone. Nobody cares. And then it happens again. And again.”
“If there’s anything if I could tell Joe Biden, as it is, just to respect our community while he’s here, and I’m sure he will,” she added. “But we need change. We need to do something about it.”
The Bidens’ visit to Uvalde comes amid mounting scrutiny of the police response to the shooting. Officials revealed Friday that students and teachers repeatedly begged 911 operators for help even as a police commander told more than a dozen officers to wait in a hallway. Officials said the commander believed that the suspect was barricaded inside an adjoining classroom and that there was no longer an active attack.
The revelation prompted fresh anguish and questions about whether more lives were lost because officers did not act faster to stop the gunman, who was ultimately killed by Border Patrol tactical officers.
On Wednesday, before details about the delayed officer response were known, Biden had praised their efforts, saying, “brave local officers and Border Patrol agents intervened to save as many children as they could.”
Authorities have said the shooter legally purchased two guns not long before the school attack: an AR-style rifle on May 17 and a second rifle on May 20. He had turned 18 just days earlier, permitting him to buy the weapons under federal law.
Speaking on Saturday, Biden said something had to change in response to the attack.
“I call on all Americans at this hour to join hands and make your voices heard, to work together to make this nation what it can and should be,” Biden said. “I know we can do this. We’ve done it before.’’
Hours after the shooting, Biden delivered an impassioned plea for additional gun control legislation, asking: “When in God’s name are we going to stand up to the gun lobby? Why are we willing to live with this carnage? Why do we keep letting this happen?”
With Jill Biden standing by his side in the Roosevelt Room, the president, who has suffered the loss of two of his own children — though not to gun violence — spoke in visceral terms about the grief of the loved ones of the victims and the pain that will endure for the students who survived.
“To lose a child is like having a piece of your soul ripped away,” Biden said. “There’s a hollowness in your chest. You feel like you’re being sucked into it and never going to be able to get out.”
Over the years, Biden has been intimately involved in the gun control movement’s most notable successes, such as the 1994 assault weapons ban, and its most troubling disappointments, including the failure to pass new legislation after the 2012 massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut.
In the White House, Biden has tried to chip away at gun violence through executive orders. He faces few new options now, but executive action might be the best the president can do, given Washington’s sharp divisions on gun control legislation. Lawmakers restarted long-stalled negotiations on expanding background check requirements and encouraging “red flag” laws meant to keep guns out of the hands of those with mental health issues, but the talks face an uphill battle on Capitol Hill.
Miller reported from Wilmington, Del. AP video journalist Robert Bumsted in Uvalde, Texas, contributed to this report.
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