Joe Biden on Sunday visited Uvalde, Texas, seeking to comfort a community devastated by the latest American mass shooting, which claimed the lives of 19 elementary school children and two teachers.
The visit marked the second presidential visit related to a massacre within two weeks following a racist attack in Buffalo, New York, as Democrats in Washington offered tentative hope of bipartisan gun reform legislation in Congress.
Onlookers cheered Biden but also called out to the Democratic president and visiting Texas Republican governor Greg Abbott about taking action to make America safer for their children.
The US president and First Lady Jill Biden, both wearing black, paid their respects at a makeshift memorial site outside the Robb elementary school in Uvalde, laying a bouquet of white flowers amid a mass of candles, flowers, and photographs of the victims.
Biden could be seen reaching out to touch the pictures of the children and at one pointed wiped tears from his eyes as he made his way slowly through the memorial.
Abbott was close by and since last Tuesday’s shooting has talked about greater security for schools, but not about restrictions on guns, drawing heckling on Sunday. “We need help, Governor Abbott,” shouted one onlooker. “Shame on you, Abbott,” shouted another.
Uvalde resident Ben Gonzalez, 35, called out to the politicians and said after that he wanted to see change on several issues, including more gun laws, more resources for mental health and for schools and that it was up to state and federal lawmakers to act.
“At a certain point of time it’s going to be on us, because we vote these people in to represent us and they are not representing us and it’s heartbreaking because things like this happen. Something needs to be done, we need change, we need help and my biggest fear is that nothing is going to change, and six months from now Uvalde is just going to be Uvalde, it’s just going to be history and nothing will have changed,” he told CNN.
The Bidens walked past the school before being whisked away in the presidential motorcade to attend mass at the local Catholic church, without making public comment.
After the service the Bidens left the church and someone in the crowd yelled: “Do something!”
The president called back: “We will.”
Biden was due to join mourners after the service and, later, first responders, as the US justice department announced it would conduct a critical incident review of the law enforcement response to the shooting, after it emerged that local police had waited for at least an hour outside the classroom where the gunman had barricaded himself and opened fire.
On Saturday in a speech in Delaware Biden lamented “too much violence, too much fear, too much grief” in repeated gun violence across America, which he called “acts of evil”.
The Texas visit came as senators in Washington DC, offered cautious optimism over a legislative deal on a package of small-scale gun safety measures.
On Sunday, Democratic US Senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut said ongoing talks between Senate Democrats and Republicans would involve compromises on both sides of the political aisle.
“I think there is something dying inside the soul of this country when we refuse to act at a national level, shooting after shooting,” Murphy told CBS News.
“And I do think there is an opportunity right now to pass something significant. I’ve seen more Republican interest in coming to the table and talking this time than at any moment since Sandy Hook,” he said, referring to the devastating mass shooting in an elementary school in his state almost 10 years ago that claimed 26 lives.
A small group of US senators began negotiations earlier in the week with a number of control measures reportedly on the table. These include a national expansion of background checks for firearms purchases and the adoption of so-called red flag laws, which allow authorities to order the removal or restriction of weapons from a person deemed to be a public safety risk.
But Murphy, who is joined at the negotiating table by a handful of senior Republican senators, including John Cornyn from Texas and Lindsey Graham from South Carolina, made clear that a number of key proposals endorsed by gun control advocates were unlikely to form part of any legislative package. These included a national ban on assault rifle purchases or limits to magazine capacity.
Vice-President Kamala Harris made a fresh call on Saturday for banning military-style assault weapons for the general public, as she attended the last funeral for the 10 victims gunned down in Buffalo, two weeks ago in a racist attack on a supermarket in a majority-Black neighborhood.
Both the alleged gunman in New York and the one who attacked the elementary school in Uvalde last week were 18 year-olds but were legally able to buy the assault rifles and ammunition they used in the attacks.
There remain significant hurdles to achieving any major legislative measures, which have continually faltered in the aftermath of mass shootings in recent years.
At least 10 Senate Republicans would need to cast a vote in favor of proposed legislation in order to win the 60 votes required for legislative passage, with the chamber split 50-50 between the two parties.
This week, the New York Times contacted all 50 Republican senators to gauge their position on gun reform. Only five have so far indicated a willingness to vote for any legislation, highlighting the power the pro-gun lobby holds over the party.
In Texas a handful of senior state Republicans joined Democrats in calling on Abbott to convene a special session of the state legislature, who later said: “All options are on the table”.
But any reform is still likely to be an uphill battle in the Republican-controlled state, that has passed successive pieces of legislation loosening gun laws after recent mass shootings.
On Sunday, Texas Republican congressman Dan Crenshaw knocked down new restrictions when interviewed on CNN.
Crenshaw, a former US Navy SEAL, also claimed AR-15-style assault rifles are “more self-defense weapons” than a tool of war.