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News brief: Uvalde shooting, NRA meeting, fighting in Ukraine's Donbas region

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

The most basic fact of the mass shooting in Texas is the timeline. What happened? How long? In what order?

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

And days later, we do not have a definite timeline. Texas authorities have given contradictory accounts. There's no consistent explanation for why the attacker remained in the school for up to an hour. Texas Congressman Joaquin Castro wants the FBI to step in here.

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JOAQUIN CASTRO: The families most of all, but really, the American people deserve an accurate accounting of what happened and an accurate accounting of the law enforcement response.

FADEL: NPR's Ashley Lopez is in Uvalde and joins us now. Hi, Ashley.

ASHLEY LOPEZ, BYLINE: Hey there.

FADEL: So what do we know about law enforcement's response to the shooter?

LOPEZ: So law enforcement officials, primarily the Texas Department of Public Safety, held a press conference yesterday. It was kind of a strange event. They didn't take many questions, and the few they did take were largely unanswered. It's worth noting that officials didn't make time to address Spanish-language media, even though three-fourths of Uvalde's residents are Latino. One of the few things we did learn is that there was no school resource officer when the gunman entered the school. Apparently, the shooter walked in through an unlocked door. And that has surprised the public and politicians, and it's a surprise because just the day before, authorities publicly stated that a school resource officer engaged with the shooter as he was trying to enter.

FADEL: So contradictions there. Authorities say it took nearly an hour to stop and kill the shooter. Do we know why, why it took so long?

LOPEZ: No, we don't. Victor Escalon with the Texas Department of Public Safety said they still can't pin down exactly what took so long. By the time the gunman started shooting and when he was killed by the Border Patrol officer, there were a lot of law enforcement officers at the scene, according to Escalon. They are still interviewing everyone who was there and reviewing footage, and until that's done, it's unclear whether that took longer than it should have. And Escalon points out that there's, like, many factors at play here.

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VICTOR ESCALON: Could anybody have gone in there sooner? You got to understand it's a small town. You have people from Eagle Pass, from Del Rio, Laredo, San Antonio responding to a small community.

FADEL: Now, Ashley, though, we've seen these videos circulating of distressed parents begging police to go inside, trying to get inside themselves. What are family members who are outside that school during the shooting, what are they saying?

LOPEZ: Some families in the past few days have started to criticize the police for taking so much time to go in and take down that shooter. As you mentioned, there were parents standing outside the school during the shooting. Many of them were pleading with officers to intervene. Families have said they're angry and confused about what happened.

FADEL: I mean, I think they're not alone in that confusion. Tell us about the response from elected officials.

LOPEZ: That's right. Democratic Congressman Joaquin Castro, who represents nearby San Antonio, wrote a letter to the FBI asking them to take over the investigation. He told NPR that an accurate account of what happened is essential.

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CASTRO: Well, after hearing the conflicting accounts by state authorities, my confidence is shaken, I think just like a lot of Americans who have watched those press conferences. And I think many folks would feel more comfortable if the FBI took the lead in this investigation.

LOPEZ: Castro also says in his letter that he's concerned that there's still no full accounting of the time between 11:30 a.m. and 1 p.m. on the day of the shooting.

FADEL: NPR's Ashley Lopez. Thank you so much for your reporting, Ashley.

LOPEZ: Yeah. Thank you, Leila.

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FADEL: A few hours east of Uvalde, in Houston, the National Rifle Association is holding its annual convention and gun show.

INSKEEP: The gun rights group is going ahead with its meeting three days after one of the worst school shootings in American history. Mass shootings are now common enough that it might be hard to hold the convention any other way. Back in 1999, the annual convention met in Denver shortly after the school shooting at nearby Columbine. And the NRA's approach to mass shootings today has only become more defiant than it was then.

FADEL: NPR's Tim Mak traveled to Houston for the meeting and joins us now. Hi, Tim.

TIM MAK, BYLINE: Hey there.

FADEL: So what's the NRA saying about its decision to go ahead with this convention just a few days after the massacre at Uvalde?

MAK: Well, the NRA has expressed its deepest sympathies over the shooting and called it a horrific and evil crime. The NRA also said it would reflect on the shootings, but it wasn't really clear how. The group denies, in general, responsibility for mass shootings in America and says gun ownership, in general, also isn't to blame. That said, Texas Governor Greg Abbott has canceled his in-person appearance. He will still speak in a recorded video. Texas Senator John Cornyn and Congressman Dan Crenshaw have also backed out of the speaking activities today. But the NRA's messaging on mass shooting simply hasn't changed. Twenty years ago, after the Columbine shooting, the NRA was uncertain about whether it could hold the line on its view of the Second Amendment as America grieved for dead schoolchildren. But nowadays, unfortunately, mass shootings are a far more frequent event for which the NRA has a pretty established playbook. And so the NRA often argues that, for example, teachers should be armed or that the shootings, like the ones in Texas, are a byproduct of things like violent video games.

FADEL: Of course, experts say arming teachers is a bad idea. But let's talk about the financial and legal troubles of the NRA. How much is this jeopardizing the organization?

MAK: Well, the NRA is facing some very serious threats, among the most serious threats to its influence in the 150 years the organization has existed. There have been investigations by Congress and other officials, most notably New York Attorney General Letitia James, and they have revealed corruption at the very highest levels of the organization, public evidence that NRA's executives, including current CEO Wayne LaPierre, have spent tens of millions of dollars on private jets, lavish meals and sweetheart insider deals for those well-connected to senior officials. Now, this is all part of a lawsuit that the New York AG has brought against the NRA, one that continues and seeks sanctions against LaPierre and others at high levels in the organization. Now, some members of the NRA board have revolted as a result of these allegations, and there is a contingent of NRA members who are seeking accountability. They're looking for more transparency and a change in the NRA's leadership.

FADEL: If this mismanagement has caused some members to lose faith in the NRA, how much power and influence does the group still have?

MAK: Well, the NRA has proven pretty resilient. You know, Wayne LaPierre is still the head of the organization despite all of this evidence of mismanagement and misspending. One mistake people make is to think that the NRA has its power because of money, but the core of the NRA's power comes from its ability to mobilize millions of members at critical moments in the political process, moments like this, when some lawmakers want to pass new legislation. And it's this power that draws politicians to the NRA, politicians like Donald Trump, who's scheduled to speak today as protesters gather outside the convention hall. The Houston airport was jam-packed last evening as thousands of people arrived in the city.

FADEL: NPR's Tim Mak in Houston. Thank you, Tim.

MAK: Thanks so much.

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FADEL: Turning now to Ukraine, where the U.S. says Russia is making incremental gains in the east of the country.

INSKEEP: The war is now in its fourth month, and the fighting is centered in the eastern Donbas region.

FADEL: And that's where we find NPR's Ryan Lucas. He is in the Donbas, and he joins us on the line. Hi, Ryan.

RYAN LUCAS, BYLINE: Hi, Leila.

FADEL: So tell us what the war looks like from where you are.

LUCAS: So the atmosphere here is very different than it is in western Ukraine or even in Kyiv now that the Russians have withdrawn from around the capital. The Donbas is a mining and agricultural region. You have massive yellow - fields of yellow flowers and other crops and then these sort of towering slag heaps from the coal mines. And this region has been at war since 2014. That's when separatists with a lot of support from Russia declared breakaway republics. And as you move further east here now and get closer to the front lines, you see fewer and fewer people in cities and towns. Most shops and restaurants are closed. You can see buildings that have been destroyed by Russian strikes, and the traffic on the roads becomes almost exclusively Ukrainian military. We drove to the town of Bakhmut yesterday morning.

FADEL: Yeah.

LUCAS: And we passed around 30 tanks and armored personnel carriers, all heading toward the front.

FADEL: A very different scene, like you say, than the west. The U.S. says Russia is only making incremental gains on the battlefield. You've been speaking with Ukrainians in the fight. What are you hearing?

LUCAS: So the Russians are making gains, albeit not huge ones, but they have been pounding cities like Severodonetsk, which is at risk of being encircled now. And one thing that we've heard again and again from people that we've been talking to here is that the war out east here is not like the fight around Kyiv. This is an artillery war. And the Ukrainian soldiers we spoke with say they are outgunned. One of them is Sergei Shokun (ph). He's in the territorial defense forces here.

SERGEI SHOKUN: (Non-English language spoken).

LUCAS: He's saying that Ukrainian forces do not have enough heavy weapons. He says the Russians have more long-range guns, but they also have more men. And he says Russia's bringing troops to this front from other places like Kharkiv and Mariupol. Now, we heard other concerns as well. Some Ukrainian soldiers said they only have had two weeks of training.

FADEL: Wow.

LUCAS: They have outdated weapons. They say they're being hit by constant artillery and rocket fire on the front lines. And they say that they have nothing to hit the Russians back with.

FADEL: But what about all these heavier weapons the U.S. and its allies have been sending to Ukraine? Are they just not making it out to them?

LUCAS: Well, one of the big items that you're mentioning there would be these howitzers, around 100 howitzers that the U.S. has sent out here. They are making it out to the Donbas, where I am. Shokun, for example, said that the howitzers are firing away every morning, and he says that they are helping. But they just don't have enough of those sort of heavy weapons yet. And the Russians, Shokun says, are trying to find those howitzers and destroy them. And he says thus far, they've already damaged or destroyed five.

FADEL: So we've been speaking about the fighters, the military. What about civilians in Donbas? What is life like for them?

LUCAS: Well, a lot of civilians here have evacuated. We spoke to the mayor of the town of Myrnohrad. He said his town normally has around 50,000 people, but there are only about 10,000 left today. But for those who are still here, it's hard. In cities and villages away from the front, there's still water and power. Gasoline though is very hard to come by. But in places like Severodonetsk, those places are under constant bombardment. We spoke to one woman who had just escaped from there. She said much of the city is destroyed. There's no power, no gas, no water. And she says people are left to cook on open fires outside.

FADEL: That's NPR's Ryan Lucas in Ukraine's Donbas region. Thank you.

LUCAS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.