As children played in their Edinburg school yard, laughing and running, Uvalde parents who lost their children in a classroom stood grimly at an adjacent park talking about changes that could have spared their pain.
“This pain, it’ll bring you to your knees begging for an end,” Kimberly Rubio, 32, said, over the loss of her daughter, Lexi, at the Robb Elementary School school shooting May 24.
Families representing several of the victims from that day traveled over 10 hours to the Rio Grande Valley to lend their support and voices to Beto O’Rourke’s campaign as he prepared to begin the one and only debate to which incumbent Gov. Greg Abbott agreed.
Kimberly and her husband, Felix, wore bright yellow shirts with a photo of their daughter who they described as smart and opinionated.
“When she wants to get her point across she can get it across,” Felix said, speaking in the present tense.
Sisters, uncles and aunts banded together wearing shirts with the names and photos of their relatives as a way to send a message to the audiences represented by the dozens of news outlets that crowded in Fountain Center Park next to Austin Elementary School.
Jesse Rizo made the trip after feeling swayed by O’Rourke’s proposals to expand gun regulations.
Rizo said O’Rourke won him over for “addressing the issue — that it’s not just a mental issue. There’s a combination of things.”
“One of them is a mental issue,” Rizo added. “The other one is going to be about putting a weapon in the hands of a young person. It doesn’t make any sense. Things like that resonate.”
O’Rourke is proposing raising the minimum age to purchase an assault weapon from 18 to 21, enacting red flag laws and background checks.
The challenger said he’s held conversations over the topic with Democratic and Republican constituents who believe there’s middle ground. Communities in Houston, San Antonio or College Station agreed with O’Rourke’s “plan to defend the second amendment and save lives,” he said.
Others are harder to persuade.
“Then I’ll go to places … some of the most rural and some of the reddest places anywhere in America and people there want us to do the right thing,” O’Rourke said. “And these are gun owners, they say, ‘listen, I can get behind raising the age to 21. I can get behind a red flag law that would allow us to intervene through due process before it’s too late. I can get behind universal background checks.”
Rizo, who described Uvalde as mostly Republican, said he’s heard these kinds of compromises in his hometown, too.
“The community is basically a Republican town, so it makes it a little bit challenging. But I think the people at this point are putting their differences aside. They’re not voting straight blue or straight red,” Rizo said. “Most of the people agree you got to change the age limit minimum.”
Several of the victims’ relatives described themselves as Democratic or apolitical, but explained their presence and message was compelled by policy, not politics.
Felix Rubio, 35, participated in two tours of Iraq when he served in the Army National Guard from 2006 to 2012.
“I’ve held a weapon of war. It doesn’t belong in homes, and especially not in the hands of an 18-year-old kid,” Rubio said. “I went to war and I made it home. My daughter went to school and was murdered in her classroom.”
Rubio and the rest of the families will be watching the debate from afar, after Gov. Abbott dictated that no audiences, even spouses, be allowed in the debate, according to O’Rourke.
“I’m hoping that Beto wins. I’m confident, but you can never be too confident with these things,” Kimberly Rubio said.
They’re all pinning their hopes on the success of O’Rourke, who said he’s willing to work and talk through any differences he’s likely to encounter in such a Republican state. But, the Rubios won’t stop after the polls close in November.
“Our interest is taking it to the federal level,” Kimberly said. “I want a federal ban on assault weapons.”