America’s gun debate reached boiling point during a news conference as two political rivals got into a shouting match over the Texas primary school massacre.
Salvador Ramos, 18, used an AR-15-style semi-automatic rifle – one of two he had bought legally in the days before the attack – in the bloodbath at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde that left 19 children and two adults dead.
Texas Governor Greg Abbott addressed an auditorium on Wednesday, blaming the shooting on a “mental health crisis” in the community.
He did not mention gun laws once, and the state is home to some of the most relaxed firearm rules in the US.
Democratic politician Beto O’Rourke, who is hoping to unseat Mr Abbott in this November’s gubernatorial election, confronted his opponent, shouting at him: “You are doing nothing to stop this.
“This is totally predictable.”
‘Sir, you are out of line’
Much of what he said could not be heard over loud heckling, with one bystander calling Mr O’Rourke “a sick son of a b**** for coming to this and trying to make it a political issue”.
Another added: “Sir you are out of line.”
Mr O’Rourke – a former Texas congressman who tried to win the Democrat’s nomination for president in 2020 – was eventually hounded out of the room, but not before saying: “This is on you.”
He has been critical of the incumbent, tweeting yesterday: “Governor Abbott, if you have any decency, you will immediately withdraw from this weekend’s NRA convention and urge them to hold it anywhere but Texas.”
Mr Abbott was endorsed for re-election as governor by the NRA in February, with the organisation giving him a 100% approval rating – and he is scheduled to speak in this weekend’s annual convention.
He is openly pro-guns and last year signed 22 pieces of legislation that made it easier for people to buy, carry and own their own guns in the state, including a permitless carry law that allows most Texans to carry handguns without training or a license.
In contrast, Mr O’Rourke is unapologetic in his support for stricter gun laws, saying in 2020: “Hell yes, we’re going to take your AR-15, your AK-47.
“We’re not going to allow it to be used against our fellow Americans anymore.”
Once the press conference resumed, Texas lieutenant governor Dan Patrick said the shooting was “not a political issue”.
The NRA later issued a statement, describing the attack as that of a “lone, deranged criminal”.
“As we gather in Houston, we will reflect on these events, pray for the victims, recognise our patriotic members, and pledge to redouble our commitment to making our schools secure,” the organisation said.
Texas home to some of the most gun-friendly laws in US
Texas laws that allow an 18 year old to buy a gun have “been in place for more than 60 years”, Mr Abbott later told the news conference.
“During the course of that time over those 60 years, we have not had episodes like this… why do we now?”
He said the “one thing that has changed, is the status of mental health”, adding: “We as a state, as a society need to do a better job with mental health”.
Texas, which has some of the most gun-friendly laws in the nation, has been the site of some of the deadliest shootings in the US over the past five years.
In 2018, a gunman killed 10 people at Santa Fe High School in the Houston area. A year before that, a gunman shot more than two dozen people to death during a Sunday service in the small town of Sutherland Springs. In 2019, a gunman at a Walmart in El Paso killed 23 people in a racist attack targeting Hispanics.
In a somber address to the nation hours after the attack in Texas, President Joe Biden pleaded for Americans to “stand up to the gun lobby” and enact tougher restrictions, saying: “When in God’s name are we going to do what has to be done?”