Ahead of the Texas gubernatorial debate Friday evening, Democratic candidate Beto O'Rourke held a "Standing with Uvalde" press conference in Edinburg, Texas, where the debate was held, alongside family members of the victims of the mass shooting at Robb Elementary School that resulted in the deaths of 19 students and two teachers in May.
O'Rourke has visited Uvalde several times in support of the families as they advocate for gun safety reform measures, such as raising the legal purchasing age from 18 to 21, implementing red-flag laws and passing H.R. 1808, a ban on semi-automatic assault weapons.
During the presser, O'Rourke said incumbent Republican Gov. Greg Abbott prohibited a live audience for the debate and announced that since the families cannot be present physically, he will be carrying mementos from Robb Elementary victims, given to him by their families, into the debate hall.
He listed a few of the items: a ribbon from Alithia Ramirez's funeral, a photo of Lexi Rubio and a card signed by families not in attendance at the press conference.
Kimberly Rubio, mother to Lexi, called Abbott's alleged audience ban, "extremely disrespectful."
Gloria Cazares, mother to Jackie Cazarez, added that the families "would love to be in the audience" but since they cannot be, they will be viewing together from a nearby convention center.
A spokesperson for Abbott denied that the governor demanded no audience at the debate hall and said both candidates agreed to the rules of the debate.
"Both campaigns agreed to the debate rules weeks ago, and now at the last minute they start complaining. Beto is a fraud surrounded by incompetence. He's in no position to run the state if he can't even comprehend simple debate rules that he signed off on," the spokesperson told ABC News in a statement Friday.
Families were emotional at the press conference Friday as they spoke about their loved ones and their pleas for gun reform in Texas. Felix Rubio, father to Lexi and a veteran, spoke about the need for change.
"I went to war and I made it home," Rubio said. "My daughter went to school and was murdered in their classroom. I fought for my country overseas and now I'm fighting for changes."
O'Rourke said that the families' advocacy will never bring their children back, but they travel and rally tirelessly to prevent other families' children from being taken from them.
"There's nothing they can do by being here now to get their kids back," he said. "They are doing it for your kids and for every other child across the state of Texas right now."
Gloria Cazares said, "There's nothing that I can do that is going to bring my daughter back. But I'm fighting for the future mom who will one day be in my shoes, who will blame herself for leaving her daughter at school after the morning award ceremony for 18 weeks."
O'Rourke referenced Abbott's comment that the massacre "could have been worse" when initially commending law enforcement for their response that day.
The Texas House committee investigating the response would later describe it as riddled with "systemic failures" and "egregiously poor decision making."
Abbott eventually defended his comment, saying he was initially given erroneous information. "I am livid about what happened," he said during a briefing in May after officials detailed missteps made on the day of the shooting.
The topic of guns and the shooting in Uvalde, specifically, took center stage for a significant portion of the debate at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley. While O'Rourke remained focused on stressing the importance of red flag laws, universal background checks, and raising the legal purchasing age from 18 to 21, Abbott stood firm that the source of gun violence problems in Texas is mental health issues and the Constitution will prevent O'Rourke's proposed gun reform from succeeding.
As families continue to urge the governor to hold a special session, he was asked why he never called for such a session in the wake of the massacre, to which he responded that it wasn't needed, citing his formation of Texas House committees dedicated to making legislative recommendations in response to the tragedy. The governor was also asked about who should be held responsible for the mistakes made in the hallway of Robb Elementary on May 24, where footage showed officers standing around for over an hour while students were inside classrooms with the gunman.
Abbott responded that officers "at every level" should be held responsible, and that the process has already begun as seven DPS troopers are currently being investigated and two are on suspension. Before the 2022-23 school year began, the school district in Uvalde announced 33 DPS troopers would be reporting to work at the district. Families took public issue with this, upset at the potential that the same officers that responded on May 24 were returning to the district for the fall.
O'Rourke spent much of his answering time allowance criticizing Abbott's response to the shooting, who he said, "has not lifted a finger to make it any less likely that any of our kids will meet that same fate."
Uvalde:365 is a continuing ABC News series reported from Uvalde and focused on the Texas community and how it forges on in the shadow of tragedy.
Uvalde families speak out ahead of Texas gubernatorial debate originally appeared on abcnews.go.com