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UVALDE, Tex. — A gunman wearing body armor and carrying a rifle killed at least 19 children and two teachers at an elementary school in this Texas city on Tuesday, authorities said.

It was the deadliest mass shooting to unfold at an American school in nearly a decade.

The massacre began at 11:32 a.m., police said, on the third-to-last day of the school year. The shooter opened fire in a fourth-grade classroom, a parent said, sending children fleeing for their lives. They crawled through windows and hid in a nearby funeral home to escape, witnesses said.

Lt. Christopher Olivarez of the Texas Department of Public Safety said that 19 children and two teachers were confirmed dead. The gunman was killed by law enforcement officials.

Before the gunman drove to the school, he shot his grandmother, police said. She was airlifted to a hospital in San Antonio, as were several other victims.

The shooter barricaded himself inside the school and exchanged gunfire with officers as they entered the building, said Marsha Espinosa, a spokeswoman for the Department of Homeland Security. One U.S. Border Patrol agent was wounded.

The gunman was identified by Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) as Salvador Ramos, 18, a resident of Uvalde.

An emotional President Biden, speaking to the nation Tuesday night from the White House, urged lawmakers to pursue tougher restrictions on guns. For years, Biden has been at the forefront of efforts to pass such restrictions, which have been blocked by Republicans and some Democrats.

“Why are we willing to live with this carnage?” he asked. “Why do we keep letting this happen? Where in God’s name is our backbone?”

Biden noted that mass shootings have become almost commonplace in the United States, unlike in other countries. “It’s time to turn this pain into action,” Biden implored. He concluded his remarks with a prayer for the parents of the victims.

Tuesday’s tragedy carried echoes of the devastating 2012 shooting at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn., that left 26 victims dead, most of them first-graders. In 2018, 17 students and staff were killed at a high school in Parkland, Fla.

The rampage in Texas came as the nation was still reeling from a mass shooting earlier this month in Buffalo, where a gunman killed 10 people in a racist attack at a grocery store.

In the first hours after the school shooting in Texas, law enforcement officials were still trying to determine what the gunman’s motive might have been, according to people familiar with the case who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe the early stages of the investigation.

The person identified as the gunman just turned 18, and did not have a criminal record, although it is possible that if there were juvenile arrests, those would have been expunged and not immediately located, the people said.

The gunman bought his weapons immediately after his 18th birthday, which was May 16, according to a person briefed on the investigation’s early findings.

Witnesses described a scene of terror at Robb Elementary School, home to students in the second, third and fourth grades. Video shared on social media showed a person clad in black jogging toward a side door of the school carrying what appeared to be a rifle.

Derek Sotelo, 26, who runs a family-owned auto repair shop, said that he and a co-worker were heading to lunch Tuesday when they heard about six gunshots coming from the school. As they rounded the corner, they saw several women who work at a nearby funeral home, screaming, “He’s shooting! He’s shooting!”

The women said the gunman had driven his gray Ford truck into a ditch outside the school, Sotelo said, and when they approached him, thinking he needed assistance, he shot at them. Sotelo said the gunman barricaded himself in the school for a terrible 45 minutes as anxious parents gathered outside, a crowd that grew to more than 300 people.

Inside, Tamica Martinez’s 10-year-old son heard gunfire from the fourth-grade classroom next door. Her son saw two children shot, Martinez said, and escaped the school by crawling out a window.

She rushed to the school when she heard about the shooting but did not find out he was safe until two hours later, when she received a text from her son’s teacher. Her son made it out with only minor scrapes on his arm from the window. “It could have been my son who got shot,” Martinez said.

Sotelo said he saw several teachers and children who had been trapped inside during the ordeal later exit the school, including a little girl in a pink and white T-shirt covered in blood, sobbing and injured.

“We saw a little girl full of blood and the parents were screaming, it was an ugly scene,” Sotelo said. “They were just little kids.”

Marcela Cabralez’s 9-year-old granddaughter was eating her lunch with other third-graders when she heard noise coming from outside, including shots and breaking glass. Teachers herded the children behind a curtain, where they all hid, trying desperately not to make any noise. Cabralez’s grandson hid in a bathroom.

Cabralez, a local pastor, received a call from a colleague who runs the funeral home near the school, asking for her help with the children who had taken shelter there. Inside, Cabralez found traumatized students. Some were rocking themselves, holding each other, covering their ears or screaming. Some stared blankly ahead. One by one, the children told Cabralez what they had seen: bullets flying through the windows, glass breaking all around them, classmates bleeding.

Cabralez said she spontaneously began to pray. “I tried to let them know they were safe,” she said.

Students were taken to a civic center about a mile from the school. For some parents, it was where they were reunited with their children after an agonizing wait. For others, it was the place where they faced an irreversible loss.

Erika Escamilla, 26, was among the lucky ones. She said that waiting for news about her niece and two nephews who attend the elementary school was torture, but she learned they were safe within a few hours. Her 10-year-old niece told Escamilla that the shooting happened in the classroom next door just after students came in from recess. Hearing gunshots, her niece’s teacher pushed her students into the classroom, told the children to get down, turned off the air conditioner and the lights and started to cover the windows with paper.

Escamilla said her niece saw blood everywhere as she was evacuated from the school. “She’s traumatized,” Escamilla said. “She said she felt like she was having a heart attack.”

City officials in Uvalde, a small, predominantly Latino community of 15,000 people at the juncture of two state highways, struggled to comprehend the horror of what had occurred. “All I know is we have a tragedy right now,” said Uvalde City Council member Everardo Zamora, who represents the district that includes Robb Elementary. His nieces and nephews are students at Robb, which he described as “just a regular school. … There’s no words to explain what happened.”

In Uvalde, the names of the dead spread quickly. They included Jose Flores, 10, a fourth-grader. He loved to play baseball and laugh, according to his uncle Christopher Salazar, who said Jose was very smart and had just made the honor roll on Tuesday. He loved his parents, his two brothers and his sister.

Ramos, the alleged gunman, had attended Uvalde High School, said Santos Valdez Jr., 18, who has known Ramos since childhood. Ramos lived with his mother and sometimes his grandmother, who was a teacher at a different local elementary school, Valdez said.

The two were friends, Valdez said, until Ramos’s behavior began to change in disturbing ways. Once, Ramos pulled up to a park where they often played basketball with cuts all over his face. He said he’d gotten into a fight.

“Then he told me the truth, that he’d cut up his face with knives over and over and over,” Valdez said. “I was like, ‘You’re crazy, bro, why would you do that?” Ramos’s response: He said he did it for fun, Valdez recalled.

Ramos egged people’s cars, Valdez said, and started wearing black clothes, leather and military-style boots. About a year ago, Ramos posted photos on social media of automatic rifles that “he would have on his wish list,” Valdez said. Four days ago, he posted a photo of two rifles he said he owned.

Valdez said his last interaction with Ramos was about two hours before the shooting, when they messaged each other on Instagram. Valdez had reshared a meme that said “WHY TF IS SCHOOL STILL OPEN” According to a screenshot of their exchange, Ramos responded: “Facts” and “That’s good tho right?”

Stephen Garcia, 18, described Ramos as having been his best friend until a few years ago. “He just started being a different person,” said Garcia — also noting Ramos’s wardrobe changes and that he’d cut off contact with Garcia.

Garcia was in algebra class Tuesday when a slew of texts started hitting his phone with the news of what had happened in Uvalde. When he saw Ramos identified as the gunman, he didn’t believe it at first. “I couldn’t even think, I couldn’t even talk to anyone. I just walked out of class, really upset, you know, bawling my eyes out,” he said. “Because I never expected him to hurt people.”

Tuesday’s massacre was one at least 24 acts of gun violence committed on K-12 campuses during regular hours in 2022, according to a Washington Post database. Those shootings have left at least 28 people dead — making this year already the third-worst since 1999.

The spate of incidents follows a deadly trend that began immediately after schools returned to in-person learning last year after closures prompted by the pandemic. In 2021, there were 42 acts of campus gun violence, a tally that smashed the previous record despite most schools remaining closed for the first two months of the year.

In total, more than 311,000 students have now been exposed to gun violence on their campuses since the 1999 Columbine High School shooting in Colorado.

It’s impossible to know with certainty what has driven the surge over the past 15 months, though researchers have speculated that a spike in gun sales, soaring rates of overall violence, the pandemic and the chaos of the past year all played some role.

The shooting came a day after the FBI released a report saying that the number of active-shooter attacks nationwide had risen sharply last year, doubling the number seen just two years earlier.

In its report, the FBI defined an active shooter attack as one in which a person or people tried to kill others in a populated area. The FBI did not include cases it said were due to factors such as gang violence or “contained residential or domestic disputes.”

There were 61 active shooter attacks last year, including rampages that killed 10 people at a Boulder, Colo., grocery store, eight people at three Atlanta-area spas and four dead at an Oxford, Mich., school.

The number was up from 40 the year before and double the 30 such incidents seen in both 2018 and 2019, the two years before the pandemic. Most of these attacks were not mass killings, which is federally defined as one with at least three victims.

Eva Ruth Moravec, Meryl Kornfield, Mark Berman, Annie Gowen, Karin Brulliard, John Woodrow Cox, Alice Crites, Maria Sacchetti, Karina Elwood, Ashley Parker, Tyler Pager, Matt Viser, Steven Rich, Hannah Thacker and Linda Chong contributed to this report.

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