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‘We Never Thought This Would Happen Here.’ Uvalde Residents Reckon With Gun Violence in Their Quiet Town

4 minute read

In the Town Square in Uvalde, Texas, 21 crosses stand in rows, each bearing the name of someone killed by the gunman who stormed Robb Elementary School on May 24. They’re about two feet high, with baby blue, heart-shaped plaques glued to the top. Sharpie pens are attached to each of them on a string, so members of the community can write messages of condolence and love.

“I will always love you my beautiful granddaughter” is written on the memorial for Layla Salazar, a 10-year-old victim of the shooting. It’s signed “Grandmom.”

If the scene is heartbreaking, to some Latino Texans it also feels tragically familiar. It’s reminiscent of the homemade crosses bearing names that people gathered around in El Paso, Texas, after a gunman killed 23 people at a Walmart on August 10, 2019 in the deadliest attack on Latinos in recent U.S. history.

After that shooting, people in Uvalde gathered together in prayer groups for El Paso, says Sue Rankin, a seven-year resident of Uvalde who participated in a prayer three years ago. Now, people in nearby communities are praying for Uvalde instead. “We never thought this would happen here,” Rankin says. “I see so many people coming together.”

Read more: ‘We Won’t Let These Babies Be Forgotten.’ Close-Knit Uvalde Community Grieves After Elementary School Shooting

Though so far there have not been any indications that the shooter’s actions were racially motivated, most of the victims in the Uvalde shooting were Latinos. Nearly 90% of the students who attend Robb Elementary School are Latinos, according to Uvalde Consolidated Independent School District data. Nationally, more than 4,100 Latinos die each year from gun violence, are two times more likely to die of gun homicide in the U.S. than white people, and are four times more likely to be wounded by a gun than white people, according to Everytown For Gun Safety, a nonprofit organization that advocates for stricter gun control measures and researches gun violence. (The impact of gun violence on Latinos comes second only to the amount of gun violence inflicted on Black people in America.)

Despite the massacre in El Paso, other mass shootings in the state in recent years, and the grim statistics, multiple members of the Uvalde community say their small town always felt like a safe haven. But Tuesday’s violence is now forcing a reckoning among some Uvalde residents over the gun laws in Texas, which are some of the most permissive in the country.

“Canada doesn’t have school shootings, the UK hasn’t had a shooting since it enacted gun control laws…and there were red flags going up all over the place for this [shooter],” says Robert Dennis, who was born and raised in Uvalde and says he has always supported owning guns. “My ideas about gun ownership are changing.” Dennis went to the center of town to write “You will be missed” on each of the 21 memorials Thursday morning.

Uvalde is a quiet community, says resident Sofia Aguilar, with relatively little gun violence despite the pervasive hunting culture and popularity of guns in the town. Aguilar says she supports stricter gun control measures. “I’m very distraught,” she says. “People are buying guns to hurt other people.” Aguilar knew one of the victims, 10-year-old Jacklyn Cazares. She wept when she found Jacklyn’s cross in Town Square.

Read more: These Are the Victims of the Uvalde, Texas, School Shooting

Uvalde County Commissioner Ronald “Ronnie” Garza, who attended Robb Elementary as a kid, says he was also shocked that violence of this nature would take place in Uvalde. “Like any small town, we’ll have an incident here or there, but this is just tragic,” Garza says. He is calling on Texas officials to support stricter gun control measures like background checks and age limits. “The current system isn’t working,” he says. “Something has to be done. We can’t accept the status quo.”

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Write to Jasmine Aguilera/Uvalde, Texas at jasmine.aguilera@time.com