President Joe Biden on Sunday faced the grimly familiar task of comforting families after another mass shooting, this time at an elementary school in Texas, as a broken community – and a weary nation – grappled with an endless spate of gun violence.
Hearing anguished calls to “do something” as he emerged from a midday Mass in Uvalde, Biden told the crowd, “We will.” But after a day of somber remembrance, it remained unclear whether or how a nation’s grief would translate to meaningful steps to prevent future massacres.
Biden and first lady Jill Biden bore witness to periodic bursts of anger during their visit to Uvalde, where a gunman killed 19 students and two teachers last week. It was their second time in as many weeks mourning alongside families whose loved ones died in a mass shooting.
The Bidens’ visit came amid news from the Justice Department that it’s conducting a review of the botched law enforcement response to the Uvalde shooting, which Texas officials have described as punctuated with wrong decisions.
Their armored black limousine arrived to a makeshift memorial outside Robb Elementary School around 11:15 a.m. Central Time, pulling to a stop next to the sea of flowers, stuffed animals and photos that has grown since the day of the massacre.
The first lady carried a large bouquet of white roses to place in front of the brick Robb Elementary School sign. The Bidens, both dressed in black, stood quietly for a moment in midday sun. The President made a sign of the cross and wiped away a tear.
After speaking with the school’s principal and local officials, Biden and the first lady walked to a row of memorial wreaths, each marking one of the slain children or teachers. They touched cardboard cutouts of each one, their photos on the front circled by white flower garlands, in quiet observation.
The Bidens attended Mass at Sacred Heart Catholic Church, where Archbishop Gustavo García-Siller invited children from the devastated community to sit at the front.
“Our response must be one of hope and healing,” he said, urging the community to “resolve to support one another with respect for our differences.” The choir sang “On Eagle’s Wings.”
Biden and the first lady spent the afternoon meeting privately with family members of the victims at Uvalde County Arena, and first responders at Garner Field, before returning to their home in Delaware.
An adviser traveling with the President said he hoped “to convey empathy and understanding of what an impossibly horrible moment this is for them” and “to offer some small piece of comfort, if that is possible.”
It was a solemn task made more grueling by the serious failings of law enforcement who responded to Tuesday’s shooting in Uvalde. And it came without promise of major legislative action to prevent further carnage, though a bipartisan group of lawmakers have begun talks to identify areas of potential action.
The frustrations of an angry public could be felt at the memorial site. Some onlookers awaiting Biden began shouting when Texas Republican Gov. Greg Abbott arrived to accompany the President.
“Please Governor Abbott, help Uvalde County,” one man was shouting. “We need change. Our children don’t deserve this.”
As Biden was departing, similar cries for help could be heard before he stepped into his vehicle.
A day before his visit, Biden spoke to the agony of the parents he would be meeting Sunday.
“I’ll be heading to Uvalde, Texas, to speak to those families. As I speak, those parents are literally preparing to bury their children, in the United States of America, bury their children. There is too much violence, too much fear, too much grief,” Biden told graduates Saturday at the University of Delaware commencement ceremony.
For Biden, the trip represented a somber duty to join grieving families in their darkest moments. He often draws upon his own experience of losing two children – a young daughter to a car crash and his adult son to brain cancer – to console fellow parents.
“To lose a child is like having a piece of your soul ripped away. There’s a hollowness in your chest, and you feel like you’re being sucked into it and never going to be able to get out. It’s suffocating. And it’s never quite the same,” Biden said the night of the shooting, speaking from the Roosevelt Room shortly after returning from a two-country visit to Asia.
In Uvalde, a community shattered by last week’s shooting, many came to watch the President and first lady make their way through the memorial site.
“I think President Biden making an appearance here is good. It’s in order. That’s what we need. We need the leader of the free world to be here, and sympathize and empathize with us,” said Ronald Garza, an Uvalde County Commissioner, on CNN.
The Bidens’ visit to Texas came 12 days after the couple traveled to Buffalo, New York, to visit the site of a racist massacre at a grocery store. That shooting left 10 people dead. Vice President Kamala Harris traveled to the city on Saturday to attend the funeral for 86-year-old Ruth Whitfield, the oldest victim of the attack.
“This is a moment that requires all good people who are loving people to just say we will not stand for this. Enough is enough,” Harris said before laying a bouquet at a memorial outside the Tops Friendly Markets store where the shooting occurred May 14. As she left, Harris issued a call to ban assault weapons like the ones used to kill in Uvalde and Buffalo.
The dual visits by the President and vice president to communities afflicted by mass murder were a striking reminder of the scourge of gun violence consuming the nation. Biden, who has spent much of his career working to enact stricter gun laws, again called for action this week.
But he stopped short of demanding Congress pass any specific bill; the White House says it is up to Democratic leaders in the Senate to determine how to proceed on potential legislation. And he hasn’t named a gun violence task force beyond officials already inside the administration.
Biden and his aides also concede there is little more he can achieve through executive action that could prevent the types of massacres that now occur with gruesome frequency.
On Sunday, Sen. Dick Durbin, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said he sensed a “different feeling,” among his colleagues in Congress when it comes to the possibility of passing gun control measures in the wake of the Uvalde shooting. But the Illinois Democrat suggested to CNN’s Dana Bash on “State of the Union” that if anything passed, it would be limited in scope due to the need to compromise with Republicans.
In Texas, Biden also confronted harrowing accounts of the shooting that even state law enforcement officials said amounted to a failing by police. The decision by responding officers not to enter the classroom where the shooting occurred – despite 911 calls from students pleading for help – leaves open the question of whether some lives could have been saved.
The White House has said it will not prejudge an investigation into the actions of police. But the timeline disclosures, made Friday during a harrowing news conference in Uvalde, only added to the sense of anguish Biden confronted during his visit.
This story and headline have been updated with additional developments.