WASHINGTON - Public safety officials admitted to a deadly lapse in judgment while gun-rights advocates were deferential but defiant Friday as a divided, heartbroken nation continued to mourn the lives of 19 fourth-grade students and their two teachers in Texas.
The incident commander who was on scene during the 45 minutes it took for tactical officers to storm a bullet-strewn classroom in Uvalde, Tex., on Tuesday made the "wrong decision" to wait, the head of the state's Department of Public Safety acknowledged.
During a turbulent and tense news conference outside Robb Elementary School, Col. Steven McCraw struggled at times to maintain his composure as he tried to explain the decision to treat the situation as a standoff rather than a life-threatening emergency.
"From the benefit of hindsight, where I'm sitting now, of course it was not the right decision — it was the wrong decision, period," McCraw said.
McCraw suggested that the on-scene commander simply didn't believe anyone else in the classroom was still alive, even though reports indicate 911 dispatchers were still fielding calls from children who were inside the school.
"When there's an active shooter," he said, "the rules change."
Until now, confusing and often contradictory details have made it difficult to form a clear picture of precisely what happened on Tuesday and what may have gone wrong.
McCraw confirmed again Friday that the armed school district officer who would normally be at the school was not there that day, and that the gunman managed to get into the building through a door that had been propped open by a teacher.
He also said when the officer arrived on the scene, he unknowingly drove directly past the gunman, who was still outside at that point and crouching behind a vehicle.
The tragedy came nearly 10 years after 20 children and six adult staff members were gunned down in a similar mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., in December 2012.
Predictably, it has touched off a familiar political tinderbox, with Democrats and gun-control advocates clamouring for new restrictions, and defenders of gun rights, as well as their largely Republican allies, closing ranks and pointing to questions about school safety and mental health supports.
About 500 kilometres east of Uvalde, the annual convention of the National Rifle Association got underway as planned in Texas as protesters gathered outside to register their dismay.
"If we, as a nation, were capable of legislating evil out of the hearts and minds of criminals who commit these heinous acts, we would have done it a long time ago," NRA president Wayne LaPierre told the crowd in his opening remarks.
"Restricting the fundamental human right of law-abiding Americans to defend themselves is not the answer. It never has been."
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott kept his appointment to speak at the convention, but did it via a pre-recorded message, choosing instead to hold a news conference in Uvalde, where he said he was "livid" about the "travesty" of incorrect information being released to families.
"There are people who deserve answers the most, and those are the families whose lives have been destroyed," Abbott said. "They need answers that are accurate. And it is inexcusable that they may have suffered from any inaccurate information."
Sen. Ted Cruz, the Texas Republican most often associated with members of Congress who aggressively resist efforts to impose gun control, also showed up at the NRA convention in person, along with South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem.
Former president Donald Trump was also scheduled to speak Friday.
"Now would be the worst time to quit," Noem told convention delegates of their efforts to resist gun control measures, a sentiment that was greeted with gales of applause. "Now is when we double down."
Cruz described the gunman in Uvalde as one of the "lunatics and monsters" who have perpetrated mass shootings in the U.S. over the years, but insisted that none of the myriad ideas around restricting the sale of weapons would have made any difference in any of them.
"That son of a bitch passed a background check," Cruz said of the gunman. And of Democrats, he said: "Their real goal is disarming America."
U.S. President Joe Biden is to travel to Uvalde on Sunday to "offer comfort" to the families of the victims and meet with community leaders, the White House says.