UVALDE, Texas — President Biden and First Lady Jill Biden visited the small Texas city of Uvalde on Sunday to meet and console the families of victims and survivors of last week’s mass shooting at Robb Elementary School.
The Justice Department, meanwhile, announced it would be conducting an independent review of the local law enforcement response to the massacre, in which an 18-year-old gunman with an AR-style rifle fatally shot 19 children and two teachers at the school Tuesday. Several others were wounded and remain hospitalized.
The review follows revelations that a large group of officers at the school waited for about an hour to storm the classrooms where the gunman was barricaded, despite the fact that children inside were calling 911 begging for the police to help.
The Justice Department review was not the focus of Biden’s somber visit to the city, which included a stop at a memorial at the school, a Catholic Mass, several hours grieving with the families and a meeting with first responders — including police officers, firefighters, paramedics and mental health providers.
The three-hour visit with families, which was closed to the public and media, was particularly emotional, according to an attendee, the Rev. Henry Becerra of City Church, which is based in Los Angeles and San Antonio.
Becerra said the large room was filled with tables where families were served lunch. He said the Bidens spent significant time with people at each table. They hugged small children and adults, and sat next to attendees and had close conversations with them, he said.
Becerra said most of the families in the room were somber but appreciative of the visit. About a quarter, though, were understandably angry, he said — and wanted answers. Answers about why stricter gun control measures aren’t in place in the country, why an 18-year-old could buy an assault rifle, and why police hadn’t rushed into the school faster.
“What are you going to do about it?” some in attendance repeatedly asked the president, Becerra said. “They got loud. They made it very clear. They wanted answers.”
The president showed sympathy and promised to work hard to change things, Becerra said. “It wasn’t, ‘Tell me what you want to hear.’ No. It was intentional. He listened.”
The Bidens’ visit drew crowds of people who lined the streets of Uvalde and at times shouted for action to be taken to prevent another such attack.
Some chanted “Do something! Do something!” as the Bidens exited a noon Mass at Sacred Heart Catholic Church, to which Biden replied, “We will!”
Residents and visitors who had gathered at the church from across the region — including San Antonio and Austin — said they were happy the president had made the effort to come pay his respects.
“That was the right choice. The right thing to do right now,” said Jessie Delgado, 70, of Uvalde. “I’m glad that a lot of people turned out. I’ll never forget it.”
After landing in San Antonio on Sunday morning, about 80 miles to the east, the Bidens traveled to Uvalde by Marine One helicopter. Their first stop was Robb Elementary, where they walked to the memorial with a bouquet of flowers. The memorial includes white crosses bearing the names of each victim.
The Bidens held hands with school officials. At one point, the president wiped away a tear.
A crowd was gathered near the school and cheered as the Bidens walked to the memorial.
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott also came to the school. Upon his arrival, a man in the crowd shouted, “We need help!”
After visiting the memorial, the Bidens joined the Mass at Sacred Heart, which was attended by about 600 people. The first lady lightly touched the hands of several people seated along the aisle as she and the president made their way to their seats in a front-row pew.
About 20 minutes into the service, children were invited to come to the front of the church. They sat down on the floor and Archbishop Gustavo Garcia-Siller told them that God had “prepared a place for the 19 little ones we lost” in heaven.
“Our response must be one of hope and healing,” he said. “We must move forward together.”
Throughout the service, more and more people gathered outside.
Angelica Guevara, 38, came from San Antonio wearing a campaign shirt for Beto O’Rourke, the Democratic challenger to Abbott, who last week told Abbott that he was partly responsible for the attack for refusing to pass meaningful gun control measures in the state.
Guevara said she hoped Biden could help push the matter further.
“I know it’s a very difficult issue, especially here in Texas,” Guevara said. “I hope that he can urge a bipartisan bill, because I don’t think this is a Democrat or Republican issue.”
After the Mass, Biden and the first lady briefly walked down the street in front of the church greeting people. As Biden stepped into his vehicle, he stood on its footboard, looked out over the crowd and waved.
As his car slowly passed others lining the street, Biden — visible through the window — pointed at them one by one.
The president’s trip follows comments he made to the nation Tuesday night, in which he demanded action on gun control measures and blamed lawmakers for failing to pass even “common-sense gun laws.”
“As a nation, we have to ask: When in God’s name are we going to stand up to the gun lobby? When in God’s name are we going to do what we all know in our gut needs to be done?” Biden said.
Less than two weeks prior, Biden traveled to Buffalo, N.Y., to grieve with the families of victims of a May 14 mass shooting at a grocery store that left 10 people dead.
Referring to mass shootings happening again and again, Becerra, the minister, said he asked the president in Uvalde, “How are we going to break the cycle?”
He said Biden told him he intended to gather a group of people in Washington to work on that very question.
On the issue of the police response, Biden “assured them that it is all under investigation,” Becerra said.
State law enforcement officials have said children inside the school frantically called 911, begging police to save them, but a tactical decision by a commander kept 19 officers from confronting the gunman.
“Of course it wasn’t the right decision,” Texas Department of Public Safety Director Steven McCraw said Friday. “It was the wrong decision. Period.”
On Sunday, Justice Department spokesman Anthony Coley said that the department’s review of the response would be conducted in a fair, impartial and independent manner, and that the findings would be made public.
In a statement, Coley said the goal of the review “is to provide an independent account of law enforcement actions and response that day, and to identify lessons learned and best practices to help first responders prepare for and respond to active-shooter events.”
The unusual review, which officials told the Associated Press is being conducted at the request of Uvalde’s mayor, will be done by the department’s Office of Community Police Services.
Outside Sacred Heart, Ndayi Estera stood waiting Sunday to see the president with her three children — ages 8, 6 and 2 — seated around her feet.
Estera, originally from Burundi, has lived in Uvalde for five years, she said. Her 8-year-old daughter, Joy, attends Robb Elementary and escaped the attack Tuesday.
Estera said she came to the church to see the president and to try to get a sense of whether things might change.
“They keep saying, ‘Enough is enough,’ but I don’t see anything changing,” she said. “It just needs to stop.”