Members of Congress were confronted with the carnage of gun violence Wednesday, when an 11-year-old student who survived the mass shooting at a Uvalde, Texas, elementary school told her story in matter-of-fact detail to a House committee.
Miah Cerrillo—a 4th grader who was in one of two adjoining Robb Elementary School classrooms where 19 children and two teachers died—described in a prerecorded video how she survived the attack by smearing herself with a friend’s blood and playing dead until the danger passed.
She recalled how the 18-year-old gunman told her teacher “good night” as he shot and killed her in the May 24 attack.
“He shot my friend … I thought he was going to come back to the room, so I grabbed the blood and I put it all over me,” she said, adding that she used her teacher’s phone to call 911.
The House Committee on Oversight and Reform heard from Cerrillo, her father, Miguel Cerrillo, from parents whose daughter was killed in the shooting, and from activists on both sides of the gun debate as lawmakers consider new laws as a response to a wave of mass shootings in recent weeks.
The hearing came days before young advocates from March for Our Lives plan to protest in Washington and at locations around the country Saturday to push for tighter gun restrictions. That group was founded by survivors of the 2018 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., and it previously kicked off a wave of student activism in the months following that attack.
The 4th grader’s testimony also came as a coalition of 17 education organizations released a consensus statement calling for actions like expanded background checks for firearms purchases.
Miah was originally scheduled to appear live before the committee, but her family opted to submit a prerecorded video instead to avoid adding to her trauma.
“I don’t want it to happen again,” she said in her soft-spoken statement.
Felix and Kimberly Rubio, whose daughter Lexi died in the Uvalde shooting, urged Congress to ban “assault weapons” like the AR-15 rifle used in the attack, to raise the purchasing age to 21, and to strengthen background checks for firearms purchases. They also called for “red flag laws,” which allow judges to suspend an individual’s access to weapons if they are deemed a threat to themselves or others, and for the repeal of legal immunity for gun makers.
“We don’t want you to think of Lexi as just a number,” Kimberly Rubio said after describing how she learned about the attack through a police scanner near her desk in the offices of the local newspaper. “She was intelligent, passionate, and athletic. She was shy and quiet unless she had a point to make. When she knew she was right, as she so often was, she was firm and direct and unwavering.”
The Rubios said they were following their daughter’s example by appearing at the hearing to advocate for new laws.
Gun laws under consideration
Past mass school shootings—including Parkland and the 2012 attack in Newtown, Conn.—have stirred emotional calls for new gun laws that were ultimately unsuccessful.
The new push since Uvalde and the racist attack at a Buffalo grocery store face a similar uphill climb. Although Democrats, who are more supportive of gun control, hold the White House and both chambers of Congress, they would need the support of 10 Republican senators for any measure to pass the 60-vote threshold required to break a filibuster in the Senate.
Still, senators have said they are holding bipartisan discussions behind the scenes to see if any legislative action could win adequate support.
The House of Representatives passed the Protecting Our Kids Act Wednesday. The package of eight gun-related bills— expected to face resistance in the Senate—would raise the purchasing age for semiautomatic rifles; create programs to promote safe firearms storage; and set new federal limits on high-capacity magazines, residential gun sales, and straw purchases.
The vote came after a coalition of education groups released a statement calling on lawmakers to pass measures like red flag laws, universal background checks, and new funding for “rigorous gun-violence prevention research.”
“The answer to stopping gun violence in our schools is not to arm our educators or to focus solely on better addressing the mental health crisis,” said the statement, which was signed by both national teachers’ unions and groups representing school principals, school psychologists, rural and urban school systems, and district administrators.
“As a nation, we must take a hard look at the various societal factors that are contributing to our high rates of gun violence and suicide and commit to meaningful action,” the statement continued.
Calls to ‘harden schools’
Discussions about new gun laws come even as some GOP lawmakers insist that a lack of attention to mental health concerns, violent video games, and poor school security are more to blame for school shootings than lax gun laws.
Witnesses invited by the Republican minority shared similar statements with the House committee.
Something as simple as properly locking a door the Uvalde gunman used to enter the school “likely would have saved 21 lives,” Amy Swearer, a legal fellow at the Heritage Foundation told the committee.
Since the attack, officials have shared an evolving timeline of blunders, including a delayed and poorly coordinated police response at the school.
The attack in Parkland may have been avoided if officials had responded sooner to warning signs, like the gunman’s repeated interactions with law enforcement, Swearer said.
Rather than pass new gun laws, Congress should allow schools to use COVID-19 aid to install new security measures and hire armed adults and counselors, she said.
Funding provided by the American Rescue Plan can already be used for mental health programs and staff, some facilities upgrades, and to support local police departments, which often staff schools with resource officers. And schools have already spent millions of dollars to upgrade security after previous shootings.
“As a teacher with three decades of experience, I am frustrated, I am heartbroken, I am angry that this is where we are 23 years after Columbine,” National Education Association President Becky Pringle testified at the hearing.
‘I’ll never forget what I saw that day’
Uvalde pediatrican Roy Guerrero, who treated children at the hospital on the day of the attack, urged committee members to take action on guns.
He described walking through the emergency room and seeing children who’d been decapitated and “whose bodies had been pulverized by bullets fired at them.”
“I know I will never forget what I saw that day,” said Guerrero, who was the first to tell Miah Cerrillo’s parents that their daughter had survived.
Guerrero said he became a pediatrician because children are the best patients, who “accept the situation as it is explained.” Adults, he said, are likely to face a tougher path to healing if they are unwilling to take action.
“The thing I can’t figure out is whether our politicians are failing us out of stubbornness, passivity, or both,” Guerrero said.