Full Episode: Washington Week full episode, May 27, 2022

May. 27, 2022 AT 5:55 p.m. EDT

Less than two weeks after the massacre in Buffalo, another community is reeling following a rampage by a gunman who killed 19 children and two teachers at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas. Join moderator Yamiche Alcindor, NPR's John Burnett, Punchbowl News' Jake Sherman, The New York Times' Zolan Kanno-Youngs and The Washington Post's Ashley Parker as they discuss the tragedy and more.

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Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Yamiche Alcindor, PBS Moderator : Terror and heartbreak.

Alcindor (voice-over) : The second mass murder in as many weeks.

Unidentified Female : We turned on the news and we heard of another shooting. It could never happen here. It happened here.

Unidentified Female : My kids are my life. I lost a little piece of my heart when I lost my son.

Alcindor : In Uvalde, Texas, 19 children and two teachers gunned down in the second deadliest school shooting in a decade.

Joe Biden, President of the United States : To lose a child is like having a piece of your soul ripped away.

Jimmy Kimmel, TV Host : Once again, we grieve for the little boys and girls.

Unidentified Male : Guns shouldn`t be as easily accessible. It`s easier to get a gun than baby formula right now.

Alcindor : Grief over the tragic loss of lives.

Col. Steven McCraw, Director, Texas Department of Public Safety : The on-scene commander considered a barricaded subject and there was time and children at risk.

With the benefit of hindsight, where I`m sitting now, of course, it was not the right decision. It was the wrong decision, period.

Alcindor : And outrage as police admit mistakes were made in the response.

Plus --

Sen. Chris Murphy (D-CT) : What are we doing? Nowhere else do little kids go to school thinking that they might be shot that day.

LT. Gov. Dan Patrick (R), Texas : We have to harden these targets so that no one can get in.

Alcindor : The political debate over gun laws intensifies, next.

Announcer : Once again from Washington, moderator Yamiche Alcindor.

Alcindor : Good evening and welcome to a special edition of WASHINGTON WEEK.

This has been an incredibly tough week for so many. Yet again, our nation is mourning after another mass shooting. Not even two weeks ago in Buffalo, New York, a white supremacist targeting African-Americans shot to death 10 people. Now, another community in Uvalde, Texas, is also reeling.

On Tuesday, an 18-year-old gunman stormed into Robb Elementary School and killed 19 children. The stories and the carnage are heartbreaking. One student describes seeing her best friend shot to death while the friend was trying to call 911. Another said she smeared the blood of a murdered classmate on her body and play dead to survive.

The family of one teacher Irma Garcia said police told them her lifeless body was found embracing her students and a final act of comfort. Here`s another account from Jared Hernandez whose little brother survived the shooting.

Jarrett Hernandez, Brother of Shooting Survivor : He told me, the moment he was at lunch, he was going back to his class. I asked him if he heard anything. He said he heard screaming and gunshots firing.

Alcindor : This tragedy is the deadliest school shooting since the 2012 massacre at Sandy Hook elementary in Newtown, Connecticut. On Tuesday from the White House, President Biden urged the nation to turn pain into action.

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? The courage to deal with this and stand up to the lobbies.

Alcindor : Previous efforts to pass gun reforms have failed over and over again. Still this week on Capitol Hill, a bipartisan group of lawmakers meant to see what new gun laws might be possible. Yet some Republicans have already made it very clear that they oppose any changes to the way Americans access guns.

Here is Senator Ted Cruz of Texas.

Sen. Te d Cruz (R-TX) : You see politicians trying to politicize this. You see Democrats and a lot of folks in the media whose immediate solution is to try to restrict on the constitutional rights of law-abiding citizens.

Alcindor : Meanwhile, this weekend, Cruz and some other Republicans including former President Trump gathered four hours away from Uvalde, in Houston, for an annual meeting held by the National Rifle Association. We will get into all of this and more tonight as we discussed this.

First, joining us from Uvalde, Texas, John Burnett. He`s a southwest correspondent for NPR. Jake Sherman, founder of the political newsletter, "Punchbowl News". And joining me in studio, Zolan Kanno-Youngs, White House correspondent for "The New York Times", and Ashley Parker, White House bureau chief for "The Washington Post".

Thank you all of you for joining me. It`s been a heavy week. So, I appreciate you taking the time.

Of course, John, I want to start with you. You are there in Uvalde, Texas. Talk to me about what sticks to you as you think about the people that you talked to in that grieving community, and the connection that so many there have to this tragedy.

John Burnett, Southwest Correspondent, NPR : Yeah. Thanks for including me, Yamiche.

Everyone does know someone who was touched by the tragedy here in Uvalde. It`s a town of only six teen thousand people, about 80 percent Mexican-American. And every single interview that I did, they knew someone or a family or they had some attachment to the tragedy.

Even last night after interviews, we went to a taco truck in Uvalde to buy some Carnegie salad. And we talked to Francisco who runs it and he said some of the little children were his customers and they would buy shaved ice. His eyes got wide and he stammered for the right words. He said, you just can`t understand. Nothing like this has ever happened in Uvalde before.

They are just stunned. They are incomprehending about what has happened here. I mean, the most excitement in town is usually Border Patrol chases, human smugglers down the main street. All the words that we broke for, you know, traumatized -- they seem to fall short of how people are experiencing this new reality.

Alcindor : Just heartbreaking thinking about what that community is going through and what it will go through for the lives of those little children.

John, I want to stick with you, because the other topic that has to be discussed here is the police response. Police did not enter the classroom -- I almost didn`t believe it when I read it, 78 minutes after the gunman entered the police -- entered the school.

In that time, students were calling 911 from the classrooms, parents were being handcuffed and tasered outside or threatened with being tasered, begging for cops to go in.

Please talk to me a little bit about what the latest is here when it comes to the mistakes that the police admit that they made.

Burnett : When we heard from the director of the Department of Public Safety today, Steve McCraw, today, I think you had tape of him at the top of the show, from the benefit of hindsight, it was the wrong decision. There`s no excuse for that.

I think what is maddening to people is how the story has continued to change. First, we heard there was a school resource officer who was outside. Then we heard that they all were inside the hallways. And then they had to get a janitor to let them in.

And meanwhile, you had families. I talked to some of them who were just beside themselves trying to get in to get their children. Some were being held back. So, I think there was a lot of disappointment, to put it mildly, with the law enforcement response, especially with the Uvalde school system which had touted its police department, its officers, that they had trained for these kinds of things, and they were ready for these sorts of things.

And obviously, they were not. So, there`s just a lot of deep anger and frustration mixed with the grief here on the ground in Uvalde.

Alcindor : And, Zolan, deep anger and frustration is understandable, given the idea that police officers had 19 officers standing in the hallway and they waited until they found a janitor with a key to go into the classroom. You`ve been talking to national security experts.

Talk to me about how this happened, given the fact that there are policies in place to make it very clear what to do in an active shooter situation.

Zolan Kanno-Youngs, White House Correspondent, The New York Times : How this situation happened -- I mean, when I talked to police experts, most of them are asking that same question because when you look at the situation in place with 19 officers outside, and the evidence that at least came out today, nothing of it adds up to a result in a barricade situation.

Now, today, the police official said that someone on the ground deemed this barricade situation, that being somebody as locking himself in a room and presenting no imminent danger to those around them. How do you square that with somebody with a weapon, with a gun inside, locking himself in a room while children are surrounding that person, calling 911 with gunshots in the background?

As soon as you hear a scream, that might indicate that there is a threatening situation or an imminent danger to those around you. We have seen in the past that police forces have no issue rushing in when they deem to find an imminent danger, even in times where it`s not warranted.

So, in a situation like this, it just doesn`t add up how that calculation was made there. And you did see them come out today and say that that call was wrong. But still, there`s going to be a lot of questions over, what did those 19 police officers know?

If you could hear gunshots on the 911 call, I don`t understand how you couldn`t hear them if you were in the hallway outside of that classroom.

Alcindor : And, Ashley, before I talk to you about the White House in terms of what they want to do on guns, a tweet that you put up, it struck me. You said, I`m waiting to see and eager to see what the accountability story is for policing.

So, talk to me about what you are hearing from your sources in Washington, at the White House, just on this discrepancy, these mistakes that police made.

Ashley Parker, White House Bureau Chief, The Washington Post : Well, what you are seeing would be a Keystone Cops comedy of errors but for the fact that 19 children are dead. And as Zolan said, it`s not just one mistake.

As we watched the press conference today, the latest bit of accurate information, it was mistake after mistake after mistake, and then several days where they misled the public. There are additional accounts, and this goes to the fact that police accounts are not always accurate. Sometimes, that`s very fair because in a fast-moving situation, witnesses are not always reliable. They are getting information in real-time.

But it went from being sort of a tale of heroism of the police force down there to the fact that you had as many police officers as children who ended up dying and they all did, according to these accounts we`re hearing, just about nothing to try to save those lives.

Kanno-Youngs : Everything points in this situation to this being an active shooter situation. After the Columbine shooting, there was supposed to be a pivot in police training. You did see training where you went from isolating and containing somebody to actually rushing in and stopping that person with a weapon immediately.

How it was deemed that this was a barricaded situation, someone -- a barricaded subject and not an active shooter situation, that`s a question that you are seeing the highest ranks of police officials asked at this point.

When former Commissioner Bill Bratton is also saying that this was an embarrassment for the police, somebody who has staunchly defended police officers in the past, even in sensitive situations, you know --

Parker : And just adding about what`s been talked about in Washington, you are seeing people talk about what we`re seeing in the news reports, which is that there, as you mentioned earlier, there were parents outside who seem to have a sort of more visceral gut instincts of what to do which was to race into the school and try to save the children. That was what the police initially were using their time and effort to prevent against, parents trying to save their children.

Alcindor : Well, I want to ask you one other quick thing before I got to Jake Sherman, which is, Ashley, President Biden has been here before. He`s talked about gun reform. He`s passed some executive orders. What is this strategy at the White House to try to get something passed in Congress? Because they`re going to have to put pressure on lawmakers here.

Parker : Well, I don`t want to take too long. But very briefly, President Biden has had a front row seat in the decade since Sandy Hook. Sandy Hook happens. President Obama at the time, five days after Sandy Hook, holds a press conference where he deputizes Biden, then his vice president, to sort of be the guns czar, he doesn`t use that word.

But Biden comes up within a month a proposal. One ends up with 23 executive actions that Obama signs, and the parallel track ended up failing, is what ends up pretty modest, almost to the point of toothlessness in the view of some gun control advocates, Manchin-Toomey background checks bill. And Biden was -- he was not instrumental to its failure but he was certainly a key person in this bill that went down.

And now as president, he also prides himself in a situation where he is somewhat helpless and almost impotent to do anything when the real action is going to be in Congress. As we`ve seen before, he has very little sway there.

Alcindor : And, Jake, as you`re saying, the real action will be in Congress which is, of course, the bet that you own. You`ve been talking to lawmakers all week. Will there be real action in Congress? What is your sense of what lawmakers could possibly agree on, especially when it comes to red flags or other things?

Jake Sherman, Founder, Punchbowl News : At the risk of sounding naive, Yamiche, and thanks for having me, I do feel that this is different than it has been in the past. I do feel as if the efforts right now are more serious than they`ve been before, just because you have a lot of Republicans in the room. So, if you look at the lowest common denominator, which you have to do now, you have to look at the easiest, lowest hanging fruit, its those red flag laws. Those laws that will allow police in localities and municipalities and states to confiscate guns.

And Congress is not going to (VIDEO GAP) what they might do is allow states to draw down on grants from the federal government to allow red flag systems to be put in place. And following up on what Ashley said, I mean, I would say, if I were a Democrat, and I`ve heard this from Democrats on Capitol Hill, I would tell the president to stay as far away from this as humanly possible.

Number one, he has 33 -- 35 to 40 percent approval ratings which is abysmal. He`s deeply unpopular at this point. And he`s failed in the past at gun reform. So he doesn`t bring anything to the table that`s really of interest to the Republicans. Of course, in a 50-50 Senate, you need 10 Republicans to get a bill across the floor.

There are -- of the 50 Republicans in the Senate, there are 35 who will never ever support gun reform. So, you have to work from that 15 and take 10 from there. So, Biden is not going to be persuaded here.

But I do -- I really do think and, again, this is just on body language, on watching people on the Hill, talking to Republican members of the Senate. There is a pretty good chance of a modest gun reform package. I think the shock of the shootings in Buffalo and in Uvalde, I feel like this is a different kind of moment for this congress. Again, these might be famous last words. But I just do get that sense this time around.

Alcindor : Well, as we are talking about this changing and there being some movement here, I want to put up graphics that show what`s really going on in America. First, mass shootings are uniquely American problem. Here`s the list of shootings in developed countries from 1998 to 2019.

The U.S. has had a 101. The next up is France was just eight mass shootings. I also want to put up this graph. It shows that in 2001, school shootings hit an all-time high. There were 236 of them, more than double the years before.

John, I want to come to you, because, of course, you are back -- you are in that community where people are impacted by this. What are people saying they want to see in Uvalde? Are they -- this is obviously rural Texas, so there is a gun culture there. What are you hearing as people in D.C. are debating here?

Burnett : Yeah, that`s a really great question. It`s kind of complicated. There`s kind of a disconnect in some ways between the culture that you are hearing about in your environment and down here. This is gun culture. This is a huge hunting community.

As a guy who owns a construction company told me yesterday, everybody owns guns down here. This is rural Texas. I interviewed a school superintendent in a neighboring school district who is keenly conscious of all these threats to his students and is doing his best to secure his schools. He has AR-15s. He likes to use them for target shooting.

And so, when I talk to people down here -- this is just the folks I`m talking to, not necessarily everyone is going to say this, but I find that a lot of the rage seems to be directed at the local response that we`ve been talking about and how the school handled this. And I don`t hear people talking as much about national legislation that we need to raise the purchase of long guns in Texas from 18 to 21 which is what they did in Florida, even in that conservative state after they had a school shooting there, or universal background checks.

I mean, the Texas politicians, the Republicans who run state government here, they always talk about hardening the schools. We heard Ted Cruz earlier. And they just -- they absolutely -- it is kryptonite. They will not talk about strengthening gun laws.

And -- but oddly here in town, or maybe not oddly, I mean, you hear people that want better school security. They want their children to be protected by the school authorities and better school cops, definitely after this episode.

Alcindor : And, Zolan, you`re going to be going with or going down to Uvalde while President Biden is going to be traveling there. What is your sense of if there will be executive action or any sort of things that he might be able to do alone?

Kanno-Youngs : I doubt that in the short term. That`s announced in an address this weekend. I think you just can look to the president`s comments when he -- during the Buffalo trip, when he went to go and comfort families of victims in Buffalo. I was on that trip as well.

And right before he boarded Air Force One, he was asked what kind of executive action are you -- can you take here? He said, I`m paraphrasing here, but he did say, look, I mean, I don`t have many options here, kind of deferred singing, the action needs to happen in Congress. Now, I did see some press releases as well, and some more statements today, now that a couple of days have passed from some more advocacy organizations that are calling for some action, appointing guns czar. You were mentioning that happened in the past., the reform of it, trying to form a task force here. Also, changing the definition of gun sellers so that you can have stricter regulation in that way.

It will be interesting to see, though, how the president balances emphasizing with families, which we`ve seen he`s very -- that`s where he`s very strong.

Alcindor : Yeah.

Kanno-Youngs : Empathize, balancing that with calling for action and also balancing how he addresses the police response as well.

Alcindor : Jake, I want to come to you when it comes to the conversation. Republicans are gathering at the NRA. You said that, you mentioned that there`s a sort of myth of the NRA that the GOP is the NRA. Speak about the political significance of Republicans gathering there.

Sherman : You know, the NRA is an example, Yamiche, I think in today`s politics of a group that is basically where most conservatives are. I mean, Republicans at the moment are second -- as we put it at the newsletter this morning -- Second Amendment absolutists. So, it`s not as if the Republicans need to go to the NRA to get kind of a dispensation to pass gun laws.

The last time the NRA took a staunch position against a piece of gun legislation was with so-called the Fix NICS Act, which was in the Trump administration, which was -- just to put it simply, basically some sort of a background check system. The NRA lobbied heavily against it. Republicans were able to get it across the finish line. Donald Trump signed it into law.

I just think that people don`t appreciate that the NRA is one of the many groups in D.C. that takes a position where most people are and claims it as their own and claims that they are causing that. This I guess is the best way to say it.

I think right now, Republicans can because Democrats are being reasonable here, Yamiche. This is the interesting thing. Democrats traditionally have tried to swing for the fences when it comes to gun control. Now, they are taking a very minimalist position. We want to stop people who are mentally ill or looking to hurt themselves or others from owning guns. We want to take guns away from them.

Republicans feel -- from the Republicans I`ve spoken to -- that that`s not -- standing against that is not a sustainable position, considering Republicans have supported that for years. So, that is the situation at the moment.

Alcindor : And really quickly, John, because I want to get one last question into Zolan, but, John, how are people feeling there, the faith to go on? In a couple of seconds if we can.

Burnett : You know, I`ve covered a number of the small-town school shootings, Yamiche, and it`s the very unity that you first asked me about and the sense of close knit that helps them get through this because they really do support each other and they know each other.

Alcindor : Yeah.

Burnett : And so, it just happened in Sutherland Springs and in Santa Fe, Texas, also, and, frankly, tons of people go to church here. And so, they feel like this is what they hear on Sunday mornings about the nature of evil, and now, they`ve witnessed a true evil. So, it strengthens their face as well. This is going to be a scar forever here. But I do think folks will recover.

Alcindor : And, quickly, Zolan, the president did sign this policing EO. We only have about 30 seconds left, but I want to just let you weigh in on this second anniversary of George Floyd`s murder.

Kanno-Youngs : Yeah, the action that the president took on the second anniversary mostly have an immediate impact on federal law enforcement agencies. But one thing that the administration has been pointing to -- which some advocacy organizations are also saying -- should not be just washed over, is this database as well that contract police officers. One thing that doesn`t get talked about as much as use of force is how police officers can be fired for misconduct and move to another department.

Alcindor : Ashley, he`s trying to do something referentially.

Kanno-Youngs : Yeah, he is. This is clearly a priority for him but it`s a very polarized issue that again, for a decade, he and Democrats and gun control groups have simply struggled with it.

Alcindor : Yeah.

Well, thank you so much to John, to Jake, to Zolan and Ashley for joining us and for sharing your reporting. We`ll continue our conversation on WASHINGTON WEEK EXTRA. We`ll break down the Georgia primary results and how the recent mass shootings might impact the midterms.

Find it our website, Facebook and YouTube. And tune in Saturday to "PBS News Weekend" for the latest on the ground in Uvalde, Texas.

And, finally, our hearts at "WASHINGTON WEEK for the families in Uvalde. This is a nightmare that no one should have to live through. My prayers are with that community and so many others in mourning across our country.

Thank you for joining us. Good night from Washington.

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