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A Texas arena for concerts and rodeos is transformed into a gathering for grief

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The last day of classes at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, were scheduled for today. Instead, it's a morning for quiet and for questions. Investigators are trying to learn more about Tuesday's mass shooting, and residents are remembering the dead. NPR's Ashley Lopez and my co-host A Martinez join us now from Texas. Guys, doesn't feel like it, but I'm going to say it. Good morning to you both.

ASHLEY LOPEZ, BYLINE: Yeah, good morning.

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

Hi, Steve.

INSKEEP: Ashley, let's start with you and with the investigation. Who was the shooter?

LOPEZ: So the shooter, 18-year-old Salvador Ramos, was a high school dropout who had recently moved in with his grandmother in Uvalde. Reportedly, authorities haven't been able to find a criminal record for him. There's also no known mental health record either, even though state officials during a press conference yesterday blamed the bulk of what happened on mental health crisis in that part of the state. We also know that the gunman purchased a semiautomatic rifle, an AR-15, at a local sporting goods store on May 17. The next day, he bought 375 rounds of ammunition for that rifle. And then on May 20, he purchased another semiautomatic rifle.

INSKEEP: I'll just note it's May 26, so this is within the last couple of weeks that he made these purchases. What did he then do?

LOPEZ: Well, this is still preliminary information, but what we now know is that earlier that day, the gunman shot his 66-year-old grandmother in the face and then used her car to flee to Robb Elementary, where he apparently crashed the truck he was driving outside the school. Governor Greg Abbott says the grandmother, after being shot, called law enforcement. The gunman eventually ran into the school, and officers on campus approached him. He was able to get away and then enter a classroom that was connected to another classroom, actually. That is where law enforcement said almost all of the killings happened. Eventually, Border Patrol made it onto the scene and shot and killed the gunman.

INSKEEP: I can just picture the two connected rooms. My kids, I believe, at some point have been in those kinds of connected rooms. You can just imagine it all happening there, as I imagine parents and neighbors and friends now have to imagine this. And, A, I gather you were at a vigil last night in Uvalde. What was it like?

MARTINEZ: There are hundreds of people just crowded into an arena that's usually used for all kinds of fun things - rodeos, quinceaneras and even concerts.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTINEZ: And last night it became a sanctuary for the pain and the grief this very small, close-knit town is enduring. Chloe Pedrosa (ph) is just 19 years old.

CHLOE PEDROSA: I don't know. I'm still kind of in shock, like, processing and that sort of thing. So I don't know. It's just - it's horrible. It's indescribable.

MARTINEZ: These neighbors who have been suffering came together to hear words of comfort.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MINISTER #1: We want to express our most sincere condolences to those who have lost loved ones. And we want you to know that we remember you each and every day. (Speaking Spanish).

UNIDENTIFIED MINISTER #2: For those who've lost little children, pray for them. Pray for the little children that saw what happened to their friends.

UNIDENTIFIED MINISTER #3: Father, we pray for the city, for all our children who've been impacted. We pray, Father, in Jesus's mighty name.

MARTINEZ: There were ministers from three local churches speaking to the overflow crowd that included local community leaders, along with Texas Governor Greg Abbott and Senator Ted Cruz.

INSKEEP: Who were some of the people that you met?

MARTINEZ: But one of them was Leah Wrench (ph). I met her near the exits after the service ended. A teenage girl was walking out crying, and I saw Leah make a beeline to her. She held her head in her hands and then hugged her for well over a minute without saying a word. And it didn't even look like they knew each other, but in that moment, that didn't really matter.

LEAH WRENCH: That's what we do here in Uvalde. We hug, and we love.

MARTINEZ: Why did you come tonight?

WRENCH: It's a tight-knit community. We're small. And I have a grandson that goes to school in Uvalde. He was not at that campus, so - just need to be here.

MARTINEZ: When you found out what happened that day, what was the first thing that ran through your head and heart?

WRENCH: You just pray. Just pray.

MARTINEZ: There's all kinds of debate about what this day, what that day means with gun laws and politics. What do you want to hear from our leaders on something like that in relation to this and what happened here?

WRENCH: I don't want hear anything about that. It's not about that. It's about these babies.

MARTINEZ: And we also spoke with a former deputy sheriff, Ben Jacklin (ph). He agrees with Leah. He says it's not just about guns.

BEN JACKLIN: It's about a hurting kid that didn't have the relationships and the connections that he needed. That's what I think the problem is, and that's a tough one to solve. It's easy to pass a law, but it's hard to change a heart.

MARTINEZ: You think the focus is on the wrong place because gun control, gun ownership is what everyone is talking about, and it's what D.C. is debating all the time?

JACKLIN: I don't know if it's because that's maybe easier to respond to than the moral issues, those deep community fibers that have to be rebuilt somehow. That's hard work. And I think a community like this that's smaller and closer knit together has a chance at doing that work.

MARTINEZ: And Steve, I've never covered anything like this before. I mean, the grief of the residents of Uvalde was just jarring. It was overwhelming. And it was really impossible not to just feel how vulnerable and violated this community is right now. I was shaken as I was leaving the arena.

INSKEEP: You're doing an unusual thing here, A, because I gather that this shooting happened and you got on a plane. What is it like to arrive in this town, Uvalde, that is normally off the national radar and just walk around?

MARTINEZ: Yeah. It's a small town like any other small town. If you take a second to look around while you're driving through it, though, you're going to see a grassy town square. It's surrounded by historic houses, beautiful homes. And right now, though, the town is overrun by a crush of media. Right around Robb Elementary School, there are so many TV trucks and satellite dishes, it felt like we were kind of just traipsing through a densely packed jungle of tents, of cameras, cables, makeshift workstations, people all around. We couldn't even see the school until we were right on top of it. And the people who live there in that area have really temporarily lost their own neighborhood.

INSKEEP: Can I ask one other thing? There's been a lot of anger about this shooting, certainly in the social media discussion, in the media discussion, in conversations that I've had. In what you've played, I don't hear as much anger. I hear sorrow. I hear grieving. I hear different emotions, maybe not directly anger. Is that how you felt about it?

MARTINEZ: Yeah, because I think that anger is going to come later for these people once everyone leaves and when they can work this out on their own. But right now, it's just all sadness and supporting each other as a community.

INSKEEP: OK. NPR's A Martinez and Ashley Lopez in Texas, thanks to you both.

LOPEZ: Thank you.

MARTINEZ: Sure, Steve. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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