A teenage gunman has killed at least 19 children and two adults at a primary school in the US state of Texas, officials said, in the deadliest school shooting in nearly a decade and the latest gruesome moment for a country scarred by a string of mass shootings.
Governor Greg Abbott said one of the two adults killed was a teacher. State officials later confirmed that the second adult killed was also a teacher.
Speaking to reporters on Tuesday afternoon, Abbott said the 18-year-old gunman opened fire at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, a small community about 80km (50 miles) west of San Antonio.
Abbott said the gunman – identified as Salvador Ramos, a resident of Uvalde – was killed, apparently by police officers responding to the scene.
“It is believed that he abandoned his vehicle and entered into the Robb Elementary School in Uvalde with a handgun and he may have also had a rifle, but that is not yet confirmed,” the governor said.
“Texans across the state are grieving for the victims of this senseless crime and for the community of Uvalde,” he added.
After confusing early accounts of the death toll, the state attorney general’s office in an official statement put the tally of lives lost at 18 children and two adults, including the gunman. A Texas DPS spokesperson later told CNN that 19 school children and two adults were killed, not counting the shooter.
Speaking from the White House hours later, a visibly shaken President Joe Biden urged people in the US to stand up to the country’s politically powerful gun lobby, which he blamed for blocking the 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 ban on assault-style weapons and other “common-sense gun laws.”
Gun violence has been a problem across the US for decades, drawing condemnation and calls for tougher restrictions, especially in the aftermath of mass shootings at schools.
There were 19,350 firearm homicides in the US in 2020, up nearly 35 percent compared with 2019, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said in its latest data.
The country has seen 212 mass shootings so far this year, according to a tally by the Gun Violence Archive, a US non-profit that defines a mass shooting as any incident in which four or more people are shot or killed, not including the attacker.
The shooting in Uvalde drew condemnation and sorrow on social media, as well as renewed calls for action to stem gun violence in the US.
“We live in a society where power absolutely refuses to protect our children. How many more kids have to die before power makes radical changes to these horrific conditions?” US author and professor Ibram X Kendi wrote on Twitter.
“We are a broken nation, full of violence. It’s just sickening to think that kids who went to school this morning will not come back home tonight,” said University of Pennsylvania professor Anthea Butler.
The Uvalde Consolidated Independent School District (UCISD) tweeted that “all district and campus activities, after-school programs, and events are canceled” following the deadly attack.
The US administration has denounced mass shootings as a “national embarrassment” and promised to enact stricter gun regulations. But Biden faces an uphill battle against gun lobby groups and legislators who are opposed to more restrictive gun laws.
Last month, Biden unveiled a new US Department of Justice rule that he said would crack down on the prevalence of so-called “ghost guns” – privately-made firearms without serial numbers that law enforcement agencies find at crime scenes. At the same time, he urged Congress “to do its job” and pass budget allocations and other legislation to reduce gun crime.
There were 61 “active shooter” incidents in the US in 2021, according to newly released FBI data – a 52 percent increase from the previous year and the highest on record.
His prayers are with the families impacted by this awful event, and he will speak this evening when he arrives back at the White House.
— Karine Jean-Pierre (@PressSec) May 24, 2022
The school shooting in Uvalde is the latest in a string of deadly acts of gun violence over the past two weeks in the US.
A gunman attacked a grocery store in a predominantly Black neighbourhood of Buffalo, New York, on May 14, killing 10 people in what investigators say was a racist hate crime. In California that same weekend, a man opened fire on Taiwanese-American church congregants, killing one man.
“In the last two weeks, at least 23 people have lost their lives in mass shootings in Buffalo, NY, and now Uvalde, Texas,” Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said in a statement.
“Congress must act, and governors and state legislators must pass reasonable gun control legislation. The voters must demand it from their representatives. How many more children must lose their lives from senseless gun violence?”
Al Jazeera’s Rob Reynolds, reporting from Los Angeles, said the Uvalde shooter’s motive remained unknown.
“There may be no why,” Reynolds said. “But we know that Uvalde is now in the same grim roll of names as Parkland, Florida, El Paso and Sutherland Springs, Texas, and so many other towns and cities in the United States that have been ripped apart by gun violence.”