SANTA FE, Texas – She stood at her bedroom door for five minutes Saturday morning trying to work up the courage to turn the knob and re-enter a world she worried would never feel safe or whole again. Then she crept down the hallway, toward the front porch where she stood the morning before to watch police cars screaming down the highway toward the high school, and imagined she’d never forget the screech of their sirens.
Christina Delgado had been dreading the next school shooting for months, since a gunman stormed a high school 1,000 miles away in Parkland, Florida, killing 17 people. Her 13-year-old daughter watched it unfold on television and said she was afraid to go to school. So Delgado had taken an unpopular stand in her home state of Texas, with some of the most permissible gun laws in America: She attended town hall meetings, quizzed candidates running for office about their stance on guns and drove to Houston to join the March for Our Lives rally – as thousands across the country, galvanized by the outspoken students who survived the Parkland shooting, took to the streets to call for gun laws that might stop the all-too-common occurrence of children being massacred in their classrooms.
Then Delgado woke up Friday morning to find that the very thing she had marched against had arrived on her own doorstep. A teenage boy opened fire with his father’s shotgun and handgun at Santa Fe High School a few miles down the road, in an attack that left 10 dead, eight of them children, in the first mass school shooting amid the Parkland students’ movement.
“I want people to know how real and how terrifying and how painful and how possible this is,” Delgado said. “It’s not supposed to happen here. We’re Texas, we’re responsible gun owners. We care about our kids, we care about our communities, we care about our families. And we failed them. It’s like a slap in the face.”
Delgado, a hairdresser and mother of two, remembers the day like a dream: a call from her best friend who couldn’t find her children, running down the highway in her pajamas, passing screaming parents and teenagers covered in blood. The chaotic day devastated this small, conservative city, where everyone knows their neighbors and just about everyone owns a gun. And it thrust Santa Fe and its population of 13,000 people into the center of the intractable battle over firearms, the nuance of which Delgado worries will be lost again in the country’s caustic, us-versus-them political climate.
On Sunday morning, even as residents sought refuge in their churches , the simmering debate was never far away.
At Arcadia First Baptist Church, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, a staunch advocate for gun rights, hugged grieving parishioners as they arrived, surrounded by dozens of television cameras, photographers and reporters. Monica Bracknell, an 18-year-old senior who survived the shooting, stopped to tell the governor that the attack should not be used as a political push for gun control.
“People are making this into a political issue,” she said. “This is not a political issue. This is not a gun law issue.”
Texas has been among the states most strident in its support for gun rights, even as mass shootings have caused other states to slowly start tightening laws. But after a gunman killed 20 elementary school children and six adults at a school in Connecticut in 2012, Texas lawmakers expanded gun rights in the state. When a man killed more than two dozen people at a church last year in Sutherland Springs, Texas, the state’s attorney general, Ken Paxton, said there ought to be more guns in churches.
In the days after the high school shooting, little evidence was emerging that it would rouse a different sentiment this time from Texas’ pro-gun lawmakers. In Parkland, students united in a fervent call for change. In Texas, many students and their parents echoed Bracknell: that something needs to be done to protect students, but something other than enacting gun control laws.
On Sunday, the National Rifle Association’s incoming president blamed Ritalin for school shootings , although there is no indication it or any other drugs are being looked into in this case. Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick blamed abortions and violent video games.
Gov. Abbott pledged to convene a roundtable of experts and advocates for both gun rights and gun control to discuss what needs to change to protect schoolchildren. He laid lilies under the sign at Santa Fe High School on Sunday, then spoke to the media about possible solutions: hardening schools, metal detectors, monitoring students’ social media accounts.
He promised “swift and meaningful action” to “ensure that we will build a pathway to reforms so that other students will not have to live through a nightmare like these students had to go through.”
It was the most terrifying event of Heidi McMillen’s life. The sophomore had been on the other side of the school when the shots broke out, and ran down the highway with a mob of other teens desperate to get to safety. Just 93 days had passed since children in Parkland had done the same.
“We can’t just keep going the way that we are, because it’s just going to keep happening,” she said. “It feels like there’s not much we can do in the amount of time we have. Who knows when the next school shooting is going to happen.”
She reflected on her word choice: when, not if, another gunman will terrorize another school.
“That’s not OK,” she said. “It’s not OK that we have to assume it will happen again. It should never happen again. But what do we do?”
She doesn’t think gun regulations are the answer. She lives in a home with guns, she respects them and she believes they make her safer – until the wrong person gets ahold of one. But she said something must be done or more children will die in shootings, and even more will survive them and be left to feel guilty, like she does, for laughing, for having fun, for being a kid.
“It’s hard for me to be OK with thinking that I can have a life after this,” she said.
Delgado, too, woke up Saturday morning, with an aching feeling of guilt that she and her kids were alive, while families in her town, people she knows, were confronting the unthinkable – that their child was taken by such a senseless spasm of violence.
When she first started wearing a March for Our Lives band around her wrist a few months ago, many of her friends and neighbors expressed skepticism of her intentions.
“They think we’re leftist nutcases coming for everyone’s guns,” she said. But Delgado said she grew up in a house with guns, and respects them and how much they mean to the Texas identity. When she’s able to explain her opinion to people, they tend to understand and often even agree: universal background checks, age requirements to purchase guns, a better way to keep guns away from the mentally ill. But the political divisions have cast the conversation as an all-or-nothing battle of extremes, leaving many to believe that lawmakers have only two options: either do nothing or snatch up everyone’s guns.
“We talk about things in black and white, but the answer is in the gray, it’s in the shadow, no one sees it, everyone just sees north or south, no one sees the middle ground, it’s not popular,” Delgado said. “But that’s where we’ll find a solution.”
Associated Press writers Jim Vertuno and Paul J. Weber contributed to this report.