'Not one more': Uvalde, Santa Fe families join hundreds of activists at Capitol gun safety rally

Photo of Cayla Harris
"What do we want? Justice. When do we want it? now," shouts 10-year-old Caitlyne Gonzales, center, as she helps lead Texans marching from First Baptist Church of Austin to the Capitol building in Austin, Texas, Tuesday, Feb. 28, 2023.

"What do we want? Justice. When do we want it? now," shouts 10-year-old Caitlyne Gonzales, center, as she helps lead Texans marching from First Baptist Church of Austin to the Capitol building in Austin, Texas, Tuesday, Feb. 28, 2023.

Sam Owens/Staff photographer

Liz Hanks was not at the First Baptist Church in Austin to preach, but she had a congregation.

Hanks, the Texas chapter lead for the gun violence prevention group Moms Demand Action, was staring out at more than 400 people who’d gathered at the church on Tuesday ahead of a rally for firearm safety laws.

Please stand, she said, if you’re a survivor of gun violence.

Dozens of people across the room got up. And on the far left side, Caitlyne Gonzales stood tall — though the 10-year-old girl was a full head shorter than those around her.

Caitlyne, a survivor of last year’s shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, was in Austin to speak out because her “friends don’t have a voice no more.” Nineteen children and two teachers died across the hall from her on May 24.

She was just one of the activists who’d traveled from all over Texas to attend the “End Gun Violence” advocacy day at the Capitol. Other Uvalde families joined her, wearing T-shirts and signs dedicated to their lost loved ones. They greeted now-familiar faces from Santa Fe, where a gunman killed 10 people and injured 13 others in a shooting at the high school in May 2018.

READ MORE: Uvalde shooting may spur action in Texas Legislature – with one big exception

Then they marched. The advocates’ asks are the same as they have been for months and, in some cases, years — raise the age to purchase an assault-style weapon from 18 to 21; pass “red flag” laws to take guns away from people deemed a danger to themselves or others; require background checks for all gun purchases.

They chanted: “Not one more.” “Raise the age.” “21 for 21.”

Texas’ Republican leaders have rejected any legislation that would roll back gun access, calling those efforts an infringement on Second Amendment rights. Instead, they’re focusing on mental health and physical security in schools, like door locks.

Gov. Greg Abbott designated “school safety” as an emergency item this legislative session, but he has not yet proposed anything specific.

“We cannot let another school year go by without making our schools safer,” Abbott said during his State of the State address earlier this month.

That’s not enough, gun safety advocates and lawmakers said from the Capitol steps on Tuesday, with the Uvalde and Santa Fe families standing behind them.

RELATED: Uvalde, Santa Fe families rally for gun safety bills on five-year anniversary of Parkland massacre

“Greg Abbott has done nothing to protect me or my friends,” Caitlyne said through tears.

She recalled the horrors of May 24: The gunman jiggled the handle on her classroom door and shot through it. A bullet flew over her head.

She heard her best friend, Jackie Cazares, scream from a nearby classroom. She had just hugged her at an awards ceremony that morning.

She had hugged Eliahna Torres, too, and promised to call her friend after school. She never got the chance.

Caitlyne was terrified. Hundreds of police flooded the school, but they didn’t confront the gunman for 77 minutes. She escaped through a broken window, running barefoot to a funeral home across the street.

“I shouldn't have to be here speaking,” Caitlyne said. “I’m only 10 years old.”

Arnulfo Reyes, a Uvalde teacher who was injured in the Robb Elementary shooting, was next to speak. He denounced any proposals that would ask teachers to carry guns at school.

“As teachers, our focus is to keep our children out of harm's way,” he said. “The teacher bringing a gun to school would make it feel like a war zone.”

Senate Democrats filed a bill on Monday addressing the advocates’ demands. Senate Bill 1274 would raise the age to purchase an assault-style weapon; require universal background checks; institute a 72-hour “cooling off” period after a firearm purchase; and enact a red flag law.

It has little chance of advancing in the conservative Senate led by Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick.

In the House, state Rep. Ryan Guillen, R-Rio Grande City, introduced a bill on Tuesday that would allow high schools to offer an elective course on firearm safety. Guillen was appointed last week as chair of the newly formed House Select Committee on Community Safety, which will handle all gun-related proposals this legislative session.