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Houston Chronicle: El Paso shooting victims’ families speak to Walmart gunman, and to us

Family members of some of the 23 people killed and 22 people injured by a mass shooter at an El Paso Walmart in 2019 confronted the killer for the first time in a federal court last week. They’d waited nearly four years. Some were barely able to speak through tears.

“I still remember everything so clearly, even though I have tried to erase it from my memory,” one teenager said.

They should not bear these memories alone. Against the waves of gun violence that seem to regularly beat against this country, we have called for a vigil of memory, testimony and witnessing. At times we have mourned alongside communities. Other times we have called for action. Steady oars in angry waters.

The El Paso shooting stands out from so many other tragedies because the shooter made his racist motivations so clear. Just before driving from the Dallas area to El Paso, he posted a manifesto declaring that he wanted “to shoot as many Mexicans as possible” and “stop an invasion of Texas” by immigrants. The family members who took the stand this week are victims of domestic terrorism.

“In your act of hatred, you stole a good man from this world,” said Stephanie Melendez, whose father David Johnson, 63, was killed. “He will be remembered but you will not.”

Johnson was grocery shopping with his wife and 9-year-old granddaughter. His actions that day, hiding his loved ones by a checkout station, saved them. … When it was the granddaughter’s turn to take the stand, she was accompanied by a black Labrador named Beaumont, an emotional support dog. 

Some family members spoke of the lasting trauma. The days when it’s a struggle to get out of bed. How every person with a backpack brings back the panic of that day. The happiness shattered.

“The killer robbed us all,” Elise Hoffmann-Taus said, remembering her father, Alexander Gerhard Hoffman.

For some, the loss is only just now dawning. Jordan Anchondo and Andre Anchondo died protecting their 2-month-old baby, Paul. Four years old now, Paul is only beginning to grasp what he lost that day, his uncle said.

Others didn’t speak but still made the trip to the courthouse to hear from other suffering families, a show of support and of resilience.

Many wondered over the promise of justice. After the shooter pleaded guilty to 90 charges, he now faces 90 consecutive life sentences. The El Paso County District Attorney’s Office is also pursuing the death penalty in a separate case. Still the scales are unbearably unbalanced.

“Why is it us in pain and not you?” Genesis Davila asked. Her parents were injured in the shooting and her soccer coach was killed. They had been outside, raising money for the team.

In the four years that have passed since a gunman drove 700 miles to go on a racist shooting spree, hundreds more mass shootings have occurred: 610 in 2020. 690 in 2021. 647 in 2022. The trauma of each has been papered over by routine statements of sympathy and support — and too rarely addressed with legislative action. For the victims, the memories and pain are often as sharp as ever.

With each new shooting, there is a new community affected. A new search for answers and for justice. But what does justice mean? Is it even possible here?

Loved ones urged the judge to use the full force of the law. That message should be heard well beyond the courtroom. The full force should include laws that more carefully regulate who can acquire guns and how. Instead, Texas leaders have continued to fuel the anti-immigrant flames that have helped motivate several mass shootings. Gov. Greg Abbott and other Republican leaders and allies have repeatedly beat the “invasion” drum, using the border as a political backdrop instead of a piece of a larger immigration puzzle in need of honest solutions.

Over and over, loved ones condemned the evil committed that day. But we must also acknowledge the good that our leaders refuse to do.

Francisco Rodriguez came to court Thursday wearing a t-shirt with a picture of his son, Javier Amir Rodriguez who, at 15, was the youngest victim. He wanted the defendant, somehow, to have to face his son, he told reporters. “No birthdays, no holidays will be the same because of you,” he said, addressing the gunman. “I won’t be able to see my son for the rest of my life.”

We will not be there when Rodriguez visits his son’s grave each year to sing “Happy Birthday.” But we can be present now. To listen and to act.

Survivors of that day have had to do the nearly impossible: survive. Taking action shouldn’t be the hard part.

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