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News brief: Texas school shooting, Biden's response, Georgia primary elections

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

We begin with what has become a familiar tragedy in this country.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

A gunman opened fire yesterday at Robb Elementary in Uvalde, Texas, and killed 19 children, two adults. Erika Escamilla heard the story when her niece came back from school.

ERIKA ESCAMILLA: She just put her hands over her ears and got down into a ball, and she said, Tia, it felt like I was having a heart attack. She's like, I was so scared; I didn't know what to do.

FADEL: NPR's Ashley Lopez is nearby in the city of Hondo, Texas. Hi, Ashley.

ASHLEY LOPEZ, BYLINE: Hi, Leila.

FADEL: So it was tough to hear Escamilla recounting her niece, a child, describing that attack. Can you tell us more about who was hurt and killed in the shooting?

LOPEZ: So the number of reported casualties has changed a couple of times, of course, since the shooting was reported yesterday. But as of now, we know that at least 21 people have died - 19 were children, and two were adults. We know at least one of those adults was a teacher at the school. Robb Elementary teaches students from second to fourth grade. So the victims in the shooting were largely very young.

FADEL: Now, Uvalde's a really small town, right?

LOPEZ: Yeah, it's pretty small. It has a population of about 15,000 people, and it sits in between the Texas Hill Country, which is west of San Antonio, and South Texas, which is near the U.S.-Mexico border. The community here is predominantly Latino, and roughly 3 out of the 4 people here are Hispanic. And in a small town like Uvalde, a tragedy like this touches almost everyone who lives here. Our colleagues from Texas Public Radio talked to some of the residents of the community who attended a vigil last night. Erika Escamilla has several nieces and nephews who attend the school. They all survived. She described the nightmare that unfolded in the school, as teachers worked quickly to put classes in lockdown, locking doors, turning off lights and telling children to get down.

ESCAMILLA: My niece was crying to me, and she was saying that she heard the guy cussing. She heard, like, loud yelling, and she heard him cussing. And then she heard, like, a lot of loud bangs, which - the gunshots.

LOPEZ: Escamilla says the experience is something that a young child should never be put through.

FADEL: Yeah. What are authorities saying about the gunman?

LOPEZ: Well, like many kinds of these kinds of tragedies, the gunman is reported to be a young man, 18 years old. According to state officials, he lived in Uvalde and attended the local high school. Governor Greg Abbott announced yesterday that the gunman died, but we don't know if law enforcement officials included him in that 21 reported deaths. One of the other pieces of information we heard yesterday about the shooter is that he allegedly shot his grandmother before he entered the school. And local officials have also said he appears to have acted alone.

FADEL: So how are local and state leaders responding to this tragedy?

LOPEZ: Well, the governor here, Greg Abbott, has deployed state resources. He asked state law enforcement to help local police investigate the crime. He's also asking for help from the state's emergency management agency. Local law enforcement held a press conference yesterday. The local superintendent, Hal Harrell, got choked up.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

HAL HARRELL: My heart was broken today. We're a small community, and, well, we'll need your prayers to get us through this.

LOPEZ: Republican leaders in the state have also spoken, mostly to conservative news sources, since the shooting and have said they'd like to see tougher security in schools. Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick said on Fox News he wants to see schools only have one point of entry. And Attorney General Ken Paxton told Newsmax that he thinks that having teachers who are trained and armed would save lives in these types of situations. And Texas is one of the most conservative states in the country, so leaders here, as you can imagine, have not talked about gun restrictions.

FADEL: That's NPR's Ashley Lopez. Thank you so much, Ashley.

LOPEZ: Yeah, thank you.

FADEL: The school massacre throws a spotlight on President Biden's stalled agenda on gun control.

INSKEEP: He's been talking about toughening gun laws for decades - first as a senator, then as vice president after the Sandy Hook school shooting a decade ago and more recently as president. Yesterday, as soon as he returned from a trip to East Asia, the president addressed the nation.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: Why? Why are we willing to live with this carnage? Why do we keep letting this happen? Where in God's name is our backbone to have the courage to deal with and to stand up to the lobbies?

INSKEEP: But what would change the politics of gun control?

FADEL: Joining us now is NPR's White House correspondent Tamara Keith. Thanks for being here, Tam.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: You're welcome.

FADEL: So, Tam, what struck you about the president's address last night?

KEITH: He started out by speaking about the pain that parents feel when they lose a child. And he urged Americans to pray for the families and the young children who saw their classmates murdered. But it did not take him long to express frustration that, politically, the issue of gun safety is stuck. In the '90s, when he was in the Senate, Biden shepherded through two pieces of legislation, including what was known as the assault weapons ban, but that expired after 10 years. Last night, he talked about how the number of mass shootings has only gone up since that ban sunsetted. You know, after Sandy Hook in 2012, that shooting that left 20 small children and six school staff dead, as vice president, he led efforts to revive the assault weapons ban as well as to strengthen background checks, but those measures and other efforts failed in Congress.

FADEL: Yeah. And this was an issue he ran on, and not much has changed in a polarized Congress. So what can the president do about it now?

KEITH: He has already taken executive actions, what he can do, including rules to ban untraceable ghost guns, more funding for violence intervention programs. But big change doesn't come from executive orders. It would take Congress to limit the types of guns that can be sold or expand background checks or put in red-flag laws to keep guns out of the hands of someone who's a danger to themselves or others. Last week, after the mass shooting in Buffalo, he said that it's going to be hard, but he said he's not going to give up. Last night, he said it's time to act. He said, quote, "We can do so much more. We have to do more." But a reminder here - Democrats only have the narrowest majorities in Congress.

FADEL: Yeah. And you mentioned Buffalo, which is less than two weeks ago, another mass shooting. This one, so many young children were killed. So does this moment, this shooting, in an era of one mass shooting after another, change the politics at all?

KEITH: You know, after Sandy Hook, people thought that could be the moment that would shake up politics. But it didn't. And there was a similar moment after the high school shooting in Parkland, Fla., which really mobilized young people to stand up and push for change.

FADEL: Right.

KEITH: Now the country is at another point where this question is being raised, but the old talking points came back out with incredible speed. A majority of Americans do support tougher gun laws. There is a minority of people who intensely believe that such measures infringe on their constitutional rights, and that group is highly motivated to vote on that single issue. It's hard to see anything getting 60 votes in the Senate. And there are even some Democrats who oppose getting rid of the filibuster rule.

FADEL: NPR's White House correspondent Tamara Keith. Thank you so much.

KEITH: You're welcome.

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FADEL: Now to Georgia, where the power of former President Trump's endorsement faltered last night.

INSKEEP: Governor Brian Kemp defeated his challenger. Trump had endorsed a candidate who was willing to deny the reality of the 2020 election. Kemp acknowledged the reality that Trump lost, and voters renominated him.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BRIAN KEMP: Conservatives across our state didn't listen to the noise. They didn't get distracted. They knew our record of fighting and winning for hardworking Georgians.

INSKEEP: Other notable Trump-aligned candidates in Georgia also fell short.

FADEL: Joining us for more is Stephen Fowler from Georgia Public Broadcasting. Good morning, Stephen.

STEPHEN FOWLER, BYLINE: Good morning.

FADEL: So let's start with the race for governor. Kemp, the incumbent, had been pulling ahead of David Perdue in the polls. So this win, it wasn't a total surprise, but what does it tell us about Republicans in Georgia?

FOWLER: Well, honestly, the final margin was an utter blowout, which was a surprise.

FADEL: OK.

FOWLER: Kemp is one of the most conservative governors in the country. He remained popular with voters for things like pay raises for state employees and stances on social issues like abortion and voting laws. This is a huge deal. It continues the trend of incumbent governors surviving Trump challengers. It shows that endorsements don't always trump what voters see and experience on the ground and that there's room for liking the former president and having a different opinion about who should implement his policies.

FADEL: OK, let's talk about the secretary of state, Brad Raffensperger, famous for telling Trump no when the president asked him to find enough votes to overturn his loss, and he won enough votes to avoid a runoff with his Trump-backed challenger. What does that tell us?

FOWLER: Well, Raffensperger did find enough votes this time for himself in virtually every corner of the state. He faced a Trump-backed candidate who said the 2020 election was fraudulent and raised questions about certifying future elections if Republicans didn't win, and voters took note. Now, another interesting data point - a sizable number of people in Georgia that previously voted in Democratic primaries pulled Republican ballots this time. Anecdotally, it's full of people that wanted to vote for people like Raffensperger and Brian Kemp because they want to trust their elections.

FADEL: Now, one major candidate who Trump endorsed did manage a win. Is that race just an outlier in Georgia?

FOWLER: Right. Herschel Walker's celebrity status means he would have blown away the competition in Georgia's Republican U.S. Senate primary even if Trump didn't intervene. He's a legendary University of Georgia football player with decades of goodwill and good vibes for many people. Here's part of his victory speech.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

HERSCHEL WALKER: I don't look like a politician. I don't talk like a politician. I don't even dress like a politician 'cause my neck is a little bit too big for this tie.

(LAUGHTER)

WALKER: But I like not being a politician.

FOWLER: There has been a parade of negative revelations about Walker, ranging from domestic violence allegations to reports of overstated resume items and his business background, and none of it really seemed to stick and matter for voters.

FADEL: Now, these Republicans will face their Democratic challengers in November, and Kemp will be in a rematch with Stacey Abrams. What should we be looking for ahead?

FOWLER: Well, Georgia has been one of the fiercest battleground states lately in recent years, and that certainly is not going to change. Both Democrats and Republicans are gearing up for a race that's going to be super expensive, super costly and bitterly fought. And expect another tight margin in Georgia once again.

FADEL: Stephen Fowler of Georgia Public Broadcasting. Thank you.

FOWLER: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.