AUSTIN, Texas (AP) – Well before the sun came up Thursday, Jazmin Cazares sat on her sister’s bed, crying over the 9-year-old girl who was murdered at Uvalde school a month ago.
Then the teen with purple-streaked hair stood up for the four-hour drive to the Texas Capitol, where she tearfully pleaded with lawmakers to pass tougher gun laws and wondered why so many security measures were failing.
“I shouldn’t be here right now. I should be watching a movie with my sister at home,” she said, sobbing. “I’m begging you here to do something or change something because the people who were supposed to protect her at school didn’t, they failed.”
Her sister Jacklyn — a tough and compassionate girl who dreamed of visiting Paris and becoming a vet – was one of 19 children shot inside Robb Elementary School on May 24th before the police stormed the classroom and killed the gunman. Two teachers also died.
The massacre and a string of recent mass murders in the US have revived debate over gun laws, school safety and how to stop the violence. In Texas, lawmakers have responded to several mass shootings in recent years by making it easier to carry guns rather than handle them.
Jazmin’s testimony before a committee of lawmakers investigating how to prevent mass shootings came as Congress headed toward passing its most far-reaching gun violence bill in decades and the The US Supreme Court has issued a ruling say Americans have the right to carry firearms in public.
But all that mattered to the 17-year-old who was about to enter her senior year of high school was that something was being done to make schools safer. She said she had been actively doing target practice since she was in kindergarten.
“It’s terrifying, not knowing if it’s true or not every time we go into lockdown. And then have to go back to school next year?” she said. “Going to school shouldn’t be a decision. But it is. I have my senior year, that’s it. Will I survive?”
Cazares told lawmakers they could honor the victims by passing gun background checks and “red flag” laws that would allow the removal of guns from people who are at extreme risk of harming themselves or others.
Uvalde’s gunman was a former student, Salvador Ramos, who bought the AR-15 semi-automatic rifle he used in the attack days after he turned 18.
“There should be absolutely no reason why this killer could have access to a firearm,” said Cazares, who later said she knew committee members were listening when she saw them burst into tears.
“I felt it. It felt real,” she said.
The Republican-controlled Texas legislature has lifted gun restrictions in the past decade, even as the state has suffered mass shootings that have killed more than 85 people since 2018.
The state does not require a license to carry a long rifle like the one used in Uvalde, and it allows 18-year-olds to buy them. Last year, lawmakers made it legal for anyone 21 and older to carry a gun in public without a license, background check or training.
Jazmin Cazares told lawmakers that since the shooting she has reviewed the school’s safety rules and ticked off a list of requirements that could not stop the gunman, including teachers being told to keep their doors locked at all times.
“How, when some of those classroom doors didn’t lock?” she said, as relatives sat behind her, wearing T-shirts with pictures of Jacklyn and the words “Forever in our hearts.”
Her family’s grief, she said, is compounded by the knowledge that some of what happened at Robb Elementary could have been prevented.
Her sister, she said, loved to sing and dance and “was one of the sweetest souls anyone would ever meet.”
Jacklyn and her cousin, Annabell Rodriguez, were best friends and part of a close-knit quintet of classmates. All five died in the shooting.
Immediately after Jazmin testified, a woman who lost her parents in a 1991 shooting that killed two dozen in Killeen, Texas, told the commission that gun sales wait times are “worthless” and gun-free zones should be eliminated.
“Let’s be clear that the gun is just a tool. It’s a tool that can be used to kill a family, but it’s also a tool that can be used to protect a family,” said Suzanna Hupp.
Hupp, a former Republican MP, said she was invited by one of her co-chairs to address the committee.
After Hupp spoke, Jacklyn’s father, Javier Cazares, followed her into a hallway where they shook hands and gave a short hug.
“There’s a bond there, just automatic, unspoken,” said Hupp. “In a sense it was my parents, and they died quickly and they died together. I can’t imagine losing a child. In my head I can’t even go there.”
Days after Uvalde’s tragedy, Javier Cazares shared how he… rush to school and closely monitored children fleeing the school to catch a glimpse of his 9-year-old “fireworks”.
Him and others parents got frustrated that the police no longer did. “Many of us argued with the police, ‘You all have to go in,'” said Cazares, an army veteran.
Cazares said on Thursday he still struggles to trust state police’s constantly changing timelines. “No one wants to be blamed for what they did that day,” he said.
During a pause in the hearing, Cazares and his family met about 10 police chiefs and officers in a hallway. “We let you down,” Stan Standridge, chief of police in San Marcos, Texas, told the family.
The delays and errors in law enforcement’s response are now at the center of multiple investigations. Texas state police chief this week called it a… “abject failure”, and said the police response ignored everything learned since the 1999 Columbine High School shooting in Colorado.
Police had enough officers and firepower to stop the gunman three minutes after he entered the school, Colonel Steve McCraw, director of the Texas Department of Public Safety, said Tuesday. But police officers, armed with rifles, waited more than an hour in a school hallway before entering the classroom and killing the gunman.
He put much of the blame for the delays on Pete Arredondo, the Uvalde school district police chief, whom McCraw said was the commander.
the school district put Arredondo on administrative leave on Wednesday. Uvalde Consolidated Independent School District Superintendent Hal Harrell said the facts of what happened remain unclear.
Arredondo has said that he did not consider himself the boss and assumed someone else had taken control. He has declined repeated requests for comment from The Associated Press.
The mayor of Uvalde resisted throwing the blame on Arredondo, saying the Ministry of Public Security has repeatedly released false information and obscured the role of its own officers.
Stengle reported from Dallas. Associated Press photographer Eric Gay in Austin and author John Seewer in Toledo, Ohio, contributed to this report.
Find more AP coverage of the Uvalde school shooting: https://apnews.com/hub/uvalde-school-shooting