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Four years ago, I spoke with Santa Fe High School senior Tyler Cruz after his 17-year-old classmate opened fire in the art room, killing eight fellow students and two teachers. “You never know who or what will be taken away from you,” Cruz told me at the time. “You can literally be shot and die at random in a second, as I’ve come to learn.”
Since then, Cruz has graduated high school, enrolled at Texas A&M University, and landed an off-campus job at beloved Texas grocery store HEB. After unimaginable tragedy, Cruz was, by all accounts, moving forward. That is until last week, when a different teenage gunman 300 miles west of Santa Fe shot and killed 19 students and two teachers at Robb Elementary in Uvalde, Texas. For Cruz, who spent so long “trying to mend a broken heart,” the Uvalde tragedy “brought back so many memories and emotions.” Below, in his own words, Cruz, now 22, talks about his own healing journey and the need for gun reform in Texas.
When news broke about the Uvalde mass shooting, I was in the middle of my shift at HEB, a regional grocery store in Texas. I glanced at my phone, and took a deep breath. Another gunman had broken into another school.
I wanted to feel something. To cry. Maybe even scream. Instead, I was numb. That’s how normalized mass shootings have become for me. But as the day went on, and the death toll continued to climb, that numbness started to fade. The details of the tragedy brought back so many memories and emotions. I felt things I hadn’t felt since the mass shooting at my own school four years ago.
In many ways, the shooting at Robb Elementary and the shooting at Santa Fe High—where I went to school—were very similar. Both happened in close-knit communities, in small Texas towns. Both involved gunmen gaining access to a school via a back door. Both shooters locked themselves in classrooms and killed students and teachers.
While restocking shelves at HEB, I realized one other similarity: Like me, many survivors of the Uvalde massacre will feel sadness, fear, and hopelessness in the coming months. I sat down in the break room, the numbness now totally gone, and cried.
The shooting at my high school, which killed eight students and two teachers, deeply affected our small town, because it’s the kind of place where everyone knows everyone. In the aftermath, a lot of people advocated for stricter gun laws and background checks. But others in the community said guns weren’t the problem—people were, and there was no need for gun regulation. It caused a lot of tension in our town, sparking heated debates on Facebook, where community members tore each other apart because of differing political views.
It was hard for us to come together, to heal, but a couple days later we were back at school. I was a senior, and students from the neighboring school cheered as we walked in. That day, we had a memorial assembly talking about what had happened and paid our respects to those we lost. It was a very emotional knowing this was one of the last high school memories I would carry with me.
We also had a lot of support through donations for funeral services, and sponsored events mean to cheer us up. We were given Houston Astros tickets and rode on buses to a Houston Rockets playoff game. It was all very cool, but it didn’t take back what had happened. And it certainly didn’t stop it from happening again.
I spent four years trying to mend my broken heart. When Uvalde happened, it broke all over again. I decided to channel that emotion into action, tweeting at Sen. Ted Cruz and at Gov. Greg Abbott. Did they know that their negligence was causing the families of Uvalde so much pain? Had they already forgotten about the shooting in my hometown of Santa Fe? They had four years—plenty of time—to ensure this would never happen again in the state of Texas. Except it did. And it will continue to happen without change.
Twenty one lives were taken in Uvalde, because Texas lawmakers neglected to make the necessary changes that should have been made after the shooting at my high school. I want them to acknowledge that this blood is on their hands—that they could have prevented this. They need to be held accountable, because they have all the power to help ensure this never happens again. Fortunately, we have an upcoming gubernatorial election. I hope our great state is able to vote out Greg Abbott and elect Beto O’Rourke to help bring about change we need so badly.
I’m not good at giving advice to other survivors of school shootings. What can you say, really? It’s tough to tell someone to take it one day at a time. It’s tough to tell them that it gets better. That’s just not something you want to hear, because you already hear it so often. We need to come together and vote and advocate to make bigger changes in this country.
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
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