Editor's note: This story includes graphic descriptions of injuries, and one graphic image taken from inside a classroom. We are not publishing images of injured or deceased victims.
UVALDE — Once they saw a torrent of bullets tear through a classroom wall and metal door, the first police officers in the hallway of Robb Elementary School concluded they were outgunned. And that they could die.
The gunman had an AR-15, a rifle design used by U.S. soldiers in every conflict since Vietnam. Its bullets flew toward the officers at three times the speed of sound and could have pierced their body armor like a hole punch through paper. They grazed two officers in the head, and the group retreated.
Uvalde Police Department Sgt. Daniel Coronado stepped outside, breathing heavily, and got on his radio to warn the others.
"I have a male subject with an AR," Coronado said.
The dispatch crackled on the radio of another officer on the opposite side of the building.
"Fuck," that officer said.
"AR," another exclaimed, alerting others nearby.
Almost a year after Texas' deadliest school shooting killed 19 children and two teachers, there is still confusion among investigators, law enforcement leaders and politicians over how nearly 400 law enforcement officers could have performed so poorly. People have blamed cowardice or poor leadership or a lack of sufficient training for why police waited more than an hour to breach the classroom and subdue an amateur 18-year-old adversary.
But in their own words, during and after their botched response, the officers pointed to another reason: They were unwilling to confront the rifle on the other side of the door.
A Texas Tribune investigation, based on police body cameras, emergency communications and interviews with investigators that have not been made public, found officers had concluded that immediately confronting the gunman would be too dangerous. Even though some officers were armed with the same rifle, they opted to wait for the arrival of a Border Patrol SWAT team, with more protective body armor, stronger shields and more tactical training — even though the unit was based more than 60 miles away.
"You knew that it was definitely an AR," Uvalde Police Department Sgt. Donald Page said in an interview with investigators after the school shooting. "There was no way of going in. ... We had no choice but to wait and try to get something that had better coverage where we could actually stand up to him."
"We weren't equipped to make entry into that room without several casualties," Uvalde Police Department Detective Louis Landry said in a separate investigative interview. He added, "Once we found out it was a rifle he was using, it was a different game plan we would have had to come up with. It wasn't just going in guns blazing, the Old West style, and take him out."
Uvalde school district Police Chief Pete Arredondo, who was fired in August after state officials cast him as the incident commander and blamed him for the delay in confronting the gunman, told investigators the day after the shooting he chose to focus on evacuating the school over breaching the classroom because of the type of firearm the gunman used.
"We're gonna get scrutinized (for) why we didn't go in there," Arredondo said. "I know the firepower he had, based on what shells I saw, the holes in the wall in the room next to his. ... The preservation of life, everything around (the gunman), was a priority."
None of the officers quoted in this story agreed to be interviewed by the Tribune.
That hesitation to confront the gun allowed the gunman to terrorize students and teachers in two classrooms for more than an hour without interference from police. It delayed medical care for more than two dozen gunshot victims, including three who were still alive when the Border Patrol team finally ended the shooting but who later died.
Mass shooting protocols adopted by law enforcement nationwide call on officers to stop the attacker as soon as possible. But police in other mass shootings — including at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, and the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida — also hesitated to confront gunmen armed with AR-15-style rifles.
Even if the law enforcement response had been flawless and police had immediately stopped the gunman, the death toll in Uvalde still would have been significant. Investigators concluded most victims were killed in the minutes before police arrived.
But in the aftermath of the shooting, there has been little grappling with the role the gun played. Texas Republicans, who control every lever of state government, have talked about school safety, mental health and police training — but not gun control.
A comprehensive and scathing report of law enforcement's response to the shooting, released by a Texas House investigative committee chaired by Republican Rep. Dustin Burrows in July, made no mention of the comments by law enforcement officers in interviews that illustrated trepidation about the AR-15.
Other lawmakers have taken the position that the kind of weapon used in the attack made no difference.
"This man had enough time to do it with his hands or a baseball bat, and so it's not the gun. It's the person," Sen. Bob Hall, R-Edgewood, said in a hearing a month after the shooting.
Republican state and legislative leaders, who are in the midst of the first legislative session since the shooting, are resisting calls for gun restrictions, like raising the age to purchase semi-automatic rifles like the AR-15. Republican Gov. Greg Abbott has suggested such a law would be unconstitutional, while House Speaker Dade Phelan said he doubts his chamber would support it.
Abbott, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and four Republican members of the Legislature — Phelan, Hall, Burrows and Rep. Ryan Guillen, chair of the House committee that will hear all gun-related proposals, declined to discuss the findings of this story or did not respond. Two gun advocacy groups, Texas Gun Rights and the Texas State Rifle Association, also did not respond.
Limiting access to these kinds of rifles may not decrease the frequency of mass shootings, which plagued the country before the rifle became popular among gun owners. During the decade that the federal assault weapons ban was in place, beginning in 1994, the number of mass shootings was roughly the same as in the decade prior, according to a mass shooting database maintained by Mother Jones. It also would not address the root causes that motivate mass shooters, merely limit the lethality of the tools at their disposal.
Relatives of Uvalde victims, like Jesse Rizo, whose 9-year-old niece Jackie Cazares was killed in the shooting, say the comments by police who responded in Uvalde are undeniable proof that rifles like the AR-15 should be strictly regulated.
"(Police) knew the monster behind the door was not the kid. It's the rifle the kid is holding," said Rizo, referring to the 18-year-old gunman. "It's the freaking AR that they're afraid of. ... Their training doesn't say sit back and wait."
A weapon of war
Officers arriving at Robb Elementary on May 24 had similar reactions as they realized that the gunman had an AR-15.
"You know what kind of gun?" state Trooper Richard Bogdanski asked in a conversation captured on his body-camera footage outside of the school.
"AR. He has a battle rifle," a voice responded.
"Does he really?" another asked.
"What's the safest way to do this? I'm not trying to get clapped out," Bogdanski said.
They had good reason to worry: The AR-15 was designed to efficiently kill humans.
ArmaLite, a small gunmaker in California, designed the AR-15 in the late 1950s as a next-generation military rifle. Compared with the U.S. Army's infantry rifle at the time, the AR-15 was less heavy, had a shorter barrel and used lighter ammunition, allowing soldiers to carry more on the battlefield. It also fired a smaller-caliber bullet but compensated for it by increasing the speed at which it is propelled from the barrel.
A declassified 1962 Department of Defense report from the Vietnam War found the AR-15 would be ideal for use by South Vietnamese soldiers, who were smaller in stature and had less training than their American counterparts, for five reasons: its easy maintenance, accuracy, rapid rate of fire, light weight and "excellent killing or stopping power."
"The lethality of the AR-15 and its reliability record were particularly impressive," the authors reported.
Its bullets could also penetrate the body armor worn by the initial responding officers to Robb Elementary, an added level of danger they were aware of. While most departments, including the city of Uvalde's, have rifle-rated body armor, it is not typically worn by officers on patrol because of its added weight.
"Had anybody gone through that door, he would have killed whoever it was," Uvalde Police Department Lt. Javier Martinez told investigators the day after the shooting. You "can only carry so many ballistic vests on you. That .223 (caliber) round would have gone right through you."
Coronado echoed the concern in his own interviews with investigators about the moment he realized the gunman had a battle rifle.
"I knew too it wasn't a pistol. … I was like, ‘Shit, it's a rifle,'" he said. He added, "The way he was shooting, he was probably going to take all of us out."
The AR-15 is less powerful than many rifles, such as those used to hunt deer or other large game. But it has significantly more power than handguns, firing a bullet that has nearly three times the energy of the larger round common in police pistols.
The AR-15 also causes more damage to the human body. Handgun bullets typically travel through the body in a straight line, according to a 2016 study published by The Journal of Trauma and Acute Care Surgery. High-energy bullets become unstable as they decelerate in flesh, twisting and turning as they damage a wider swath of tissue. This creates "not only a permanent cavity the size of the caliber of the bullet, but also a ... second cavity often many times larger than the bullet itself."
The Defense Department report detailed this effect in plainer language, describing the AR-15's performance in a firefight with Viet Cong at a range of 50 meters: "One man was shot in the head; it looked like it exploded. A second man was hit in the chest; his back was one big hole."
The Defense Department placed its first mass order for the rifle in 1963, calling its version the M16, and based each of its service rifles until 2022 on this design. The only significant difference between the military and civilian versions of the AR-15 is that the military rifle can fire automatically, meaning the user can depress the trigger to shoot multiple rounds. The civilian AR-15 is semi-automatic, requiring a trigger pull for each round.
In the context of mass shootings, it is a distinction without a meaningful difference: Both rates of fire can kill a roomful of people in seconds.
That's what happened in Uvalde.
In two and a half minutes, before any police officer set foot inside the school, the gunman fired more than 100 rounds at students and teachers from point-blank range. Several victims lost large portions of their heads, photos taken by investigators show. Bullets tore gashes in flesh as long as a foot. They shattered a child's shin, nearly severed another's arm at the elbow, ripped open another's neck, blasted a hole the size of a baseball in another's hip. Other rounds penetrated the wall of Room 111, passed through the empty Room 110, punctured another wall and wounded a student and teacher in Room 109, who survived.
When medics finally reached the victims, there was nothing they could do for most, they said in interviews with investigators. Eighteen of the 21 were pronounced dead at the school. Police assigned each a letter of the alphabet and took DNA samples so they could be identified by family.
Rifle popularity surges
Ruben Torres, who saw what the rifle can do in combat while serving as a Marine infantryman in Iraq and Afghanistan, never imagined someone would use it to try and kill his daughter, Khloie, who was wounded by bullet fragments at Robb Elementary.
The Corps spends so much time drilling firearm safety into Marines that Torres can recite the rules from memory. Even now, he has no objection to civilians owning AR-15s, but he thinks they should be required to complete training like soldiers because too many who buy one treat it like a toy.
"You get people that never served in the military or law enforcement, and yet they're wannabes," Torres said. "They purchase this weapons system, not having a clue how to use it, the type of power and the level of maturity needed to even operate it."
It was customers seeking a military experience who helped spur the rifle's surge in popularity over the past 15 years, gun industry researchers say. Civilians have been able to buy an AR-15 since the mid-1960s, but for decades it was a niche product whose largest customer segment included police SWAT units.
A federal assault weapons ban expired in 2004, creating a new opportunity to market rifles like the AR-15 to the general public, said Timothy Lytton, a professor at the Georgia State University College of Law who researches the gun industry.
"In the 2000s, there was a shift in the industry's marketing to people who are not just looking for self-defense, but people who are also looking for some sort of tactical experience," Lytton said. He said this new consumer wanted to "simulate military combat situations."
Sales of the rifle exploded. The National Shooting Sports Foundation, a prominent trade group, estimates American gunmakers produced 1.4 million semi-automatic rifles like the AR-15 in 2015, excluding exports — a figure 10 times higher than a decade earlier. This group of semi-automatic rifles accounted for 89% of the rifles made by domestic manufacturers in 2020, according to government and industry data.
As it grew more popular with the public, the rifle also became more popular with mass shooters. AR-15-style rifles weren't used in any mass shootings until 2007, according to the mass shooting database maintained by Mother Jones, which includes indiscriminate killings of at least three people in public places, excluding crimes that stem from robbery, gang activity or other conventionally explained motives.
Gunmen used the rifle in 5% of attacks that decade and 27% in the 2010s. 2022 cemented the AR-15 as the weapon of choice for mass shooters. They wielded the rifle in 67% of the 12 massacres that year, including a parade in Illinois where seven were slain and a supermarket shooting in New York that killed 10.
The death toll in Uvalde exceeded them both.
The gunman's purchase
Little is known about what motivated the shooter in Uvalde or why he targeted the elementary school he once attended. But signs of planning, and a fixation on guns, stretched back months.
Beginning in late 2021, he began buying accessories: an electronic gun sight, rifle straps, shin guards, a vest with pockets to hold body armor and a hellfire trigger, which can be snapped onto semi-automatic weapons to allow near-automatic fire.
He faced a single significant obstacle to assembling an arsenal: Under Texas law, the minimum age to purchase long guns like rifles is 18. That hindrance vanished on May 16, 2022, his 18th birthday. He ordered an AR-15-style rifle from the website of Daniel Defense, a gunmaker that has pioneered marketing firearms via social media.
Its sleek Instagram videos often feature young men rapidly firing the company's rifles, wearing outfits that resemble combat uniforms. Other posts feature members of the U.S. military. A lawsuit filed by Uvalde victims' families against Daniel Defense alleges the gunmaker's marketing intentionally targets vulnerable young men driven by military fantasies.
The company rejected these claims and cast the lawsuit as an attempt to bankrupt the gun industry.
"To imply that images portraying the heroic work of our soldiers risking their lives in combat inspires young men back home to shoot children is inexcusable," then-CEO Marty Daniel said last year. The case is ongoing.
Federal law requires weapons purchased online to be picked up at a licensed dealer, which also performs a background check. The Uvalde gunman had no criminal history and had never been arrested, ensuring he would pass. He had the Daniel Defense rifle shipped to Oasis Outback, a gun store in town.
The gunman visited the store alone three times between May 17 and May 20. First, he purchased a Smith & Wesson AR-15-style rifle, then returned to buy 375 rounds of ammunition, then came back again to pick up the Daniel Defense rifle. Surveillance footage from the shop shows an employee placing the case on the counter and opening it. The gunman picked up the rifle, peered down the barrel and placed his finger on the trigger — a breach of a cardinal rule of gun safety, to never do so until you are ready to fire.
The gun store's owner told investigators he was an average customer with no "red flags," though patrons told FBI agents he was "very nervous looking" and "appeared odd and looked like one of those school shooters."
An online order he'd placed for 1,740 rifle cartridges arrived at 6:09 p.m. on May 23. In the eight days after he became eligible to purchase firearms, he bought two AR-15-style rifles and 2,115 rounds of ammunition.
He had broken no laws. He had aroused no suspicion with authorities. And, like many mass shooters, he had given no public warning about his plan.
May 24, the day of the Uvalde shooting, was most likely the first time he had ever fired a gun, investigators concluded. To do so with an AR-15 is simple: Insert a loaded magazine, cock the rifle to force a cartridge into the firing chamber, slide the safety switch off and pull the trigger. Still, he initially struggled to attach the magazine correctly in the previous days, a relative recalled to investigators, and it kept falling to the floor.
He figured it out by the time he pointed one of the rifles at his grandmother and shot her in the face, amid a dispute about his cellphone plan. The bullet tore a gash in the right side of her face; she required a lengthy hospitalization but survived. He took only the Daniel Defense rifle to the school, leaving the Smith & Wesson at his grandmother's truck, which he had stolen, driven three blocks and crashed on the west edge of the elementary campus.
When other officers hesitated
The 77-minute delay in breaching the fourth grade classroom was an "abject failure" that set the law enforcement profession back a decade, the Texas state police director said in June. Police had failed to follow protocol developed after the 1999 Columbine school shooting that states the first priority is to confront shooters and stop the killing. Yet even beyond Uvalde, the performance of police against active shooters with AR-15-style rifles — which were rarely used in mass shootings when the standards were developed — is inconsistent.
When a gunman began firing an AR-15-style rifle in 2016 at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, an officer providing security waited six minutes for backup before pursuing the suspect into the club; he later said his handgun was "no match" for the shooter's rifle.
Two years later, a sheriff's deputy at Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida did not confront the AR-15-wielding shooter there, either. Investigators said he instead retreated for four and a half minutes, during which the gunman shot 10 students and teachers, six fatally.
In some instances, police have confronted the rifle without hesitation. Officers killed a gunman who had fatally shot seven people in a 2019 shooting spree in Midland and Odessa. During the 2021 supermarket shooting in Boulder, Colorado, one of the 10 victims the gunman killed with his AR-15 was one of the first responding officers.
The extreme stress the body experiences in a gunfight slows critical thinking and motor skills, said Massad Ayoob, a police firearms trainer since the 1970s. Officers can overcome this with repeated training that is as realistic as possible, he said. Without it, they are more likely to freeze or retreat.
"Have you ever been in a firefight? Have you ever been in a situation where you were about to die?" said Kevin Lawrence, a law enforcement officer for 40 years and the executive director of the Texas Municipal Police Association. "None of us knows how we're going to react to that circumstance until we're in it."
Improved training that reinforces the expectation that police immediately confront active shooters would improve the likelihood that they do so, said Jimmy Perdue, president of the Texas Police Chiefs Association. But because they attack at random locations and times, he said it is unrealistic to expect that all 800,000 law enforcement officers in the United States would be prepared. That rifles like the AR-15 are especially lethal, he acknowledged, adds an additional mental obstacle for officers.
"All we can do is play the averages ... and hope that the training will take place and they'll be able to understand the gravity of the situation and respond accordingly," Perdue said. "But there is no guarantee that the one officer that happens to be on duty when this next shooting occurs is going to respond correctly."
In many cases, whether officers follow active-shooter training is irrelevant. Most mass shootings end in less than five minutes, research from the FBI concluded, often before officers arrive.
This was the case in Newtown, Connecticut, where a gunman killed 26 people at an elementary school in 2012, and in Aurora, Colorado, where another killed 12 people at a movie theater the same year. Both used AR-15-style rifles.
Resistance to gun control
Texas has a long, proud and increasingly less-regulated history of gun ownership. It is rooted in a belief in personal responsibility, that average citizens can sensibly own guns to protect themselves and their families and intervene to stop armed criminals in the absence of police.
"Ultimately, as we all know, what stops armed bad guys is armed good guys," said U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz at the National Rifle Association convention in Houston three days after the Uvalde shooting.
He cited two examples: the Border Patrol team who finally breached the classroom at Robb Elementary and the firearms instructor who shot the gunman who in 2017 attacked a church in Sutherland Springs with an AR-15-style rifle. Both actions potentially saved lives. But they failed to prevent the murders of 47 people.
This year a group of Uvalde families has been regularly visiting the Capitol to push for stricter gun laws, including to raise the age someone can legally purchase AR-15-style rifles to 21.
The mass shootings since 2016 in Dallas, Sutherland Springs, Santa Fe, El Paso and Midland-Odessa — all but one committed with a semi-automatic rifle — did not persuade the Legislature to restrict access to guns. Instead, lawmakers relaxed regulations, including allowing the open carry of handguns without a license or training. And Democrats who have proposed a number of new restrictions this session admit that their bills face nearly insurmountable odds.
The AR-15s carried by state troopers at the Capitol give Sandra Torres flashbacks. Her daughter, 10-year-old Eliahna, a promising softball player, died at Robb Elementary. Sandra never got to tell her she'd made the all-star team. Mack Segovia, Eliahna's stepfather, didn't grow up around guns, but he's seen enough pictures of 200-pound wild hogs his friends tore up with AR-15s while hunting to understand what the rifle did to his daughter.
The couple has made the six-hour round trip to Austin five times already, squeezing with other families into tiny offices for meetings with lawmakers to ask for what they think are commonsense regulations. Most legislators are cordial, but sometimes the families can tell they are being rebuffed, Torres said. Her partner recalled how the House speaker drove 360 miles from his home in Beaumont to Uvalde to tell families he did not support new gun laws, which struck him as a hell of a long way for a man to travel to say: Sorry, I can't help you.
The experience is frustrating. Torres and Segovia said they did not have a strong opinion about guns until their daughter was taken from them by a young man who bought one designed for combat, no questions asked. They said they feel compelled, if Eliahna's death served any purpose, to make it harder for other people to do the same.
"Those were babies," Segovia said. "I promise you, if it happened to those people in the Senate, or the governor, it would be different."
This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2023/03/20/uvalde-shooting-police-ar-15/. The Texas Tribune is a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom informing and engaging Texans on state politics and policy. Learn more at texastribune.org.