A fleet of 52 yellow school buses formed a mile-long procession to Sen. Ted Cruz’s house in Houston on Thursday morning — 4,368 empty seats to honor the number of children killed by gun violence since 2020.
The first bus carried items from school shooting victims, including a pair of worn-out checkered Vans from 15-year-old Gracie Muehlberger, killed at her Santa Clarita high school in 2019; a kindergarten graduation card with a smiling teddy bear on it, awarded to Sandy Hook victim Chase Kowalski; and a LeBron James Miami Heat jersey adored by Joaquin Oliver, who died in the Parkland school shooting in 2018.
Named “The NRA Children’s Museum,” this project is the latest by artist Manuel Oliver, father of Joaquin.
“It’s partially with the intention that some people will think this is truly an NRA museum,” Oliver told BuzzFeed News.
Since his son’s death, Oliver has channeled his advocacy for gun control into works of public art and activism. On Monday, he interrupted President Joe Biden during a Rose Garden speech, calling on the White House to open an office specifically for gun violence. Last year, he orchestrated a fake graduation where a former National Rifle Association president spoke to over 3,000 empty seats, representing the teen victims of gun violence. Now he wants people to look at which government officials accept NRA donations.
“We’re going after the money,” Oliver said. “These leaders are not loyal to the Second Amendment. They’re loyal to the gun industry and manufacturers, who protect them. And there’s lots of messages that supporting gun control is not patriotic. It’s corrupt, and I wanted to find a graphic way of showing them what the impact really is.”
Oliver hand-delivered a letter from his late son Thursday to the home of Cruz, who has received a total of $749,000 from the pro-gun group. The note, which had been written by a 12-year-old Joaquin, spoke to gun owners about his thoughts on gun control in the country. When the buses arrived, a security guard came out and accepted the letter. Oliver did not receive an immediate response from Cruz. The procession left shortly after due to encircling police presence.
Speaking to BuzzFeed News from Cruz’s offices on Thursday, Oliver said he was asked to leave the senator’s property by security, where he asked them a few questions from the sidewalk. “I asked if they wanted to know who I am, if they were a little curious,” he said. “I left the letter, and [the guard] took some pictures and made some calls. I don’t know who he called.”
Oliver said that his wife Patricia found the letter a month after Joaquin was killed. “It was from a school project,” he said. “He was a kid writing this letter. I was really impressed when I read it. We’ve been keeping it, our little letter to remind us about what we’re fighting for. My son knew, at 12 years old, what to do better than Ted Cruz. I want [Cruz] to read that with his own eyes.”
“I am writing this letter to talk to you about how were going to solve this gun law movement,” Joaquin said in the note, written five years before his death. “Most of you have a problem with the idea of universal back round check. Why are you mad that there’s a back round check it’s for your own good maybe you are fond of having crazy people with death machines. You shouldn’t have anything against back round checks if you’re innocent.”
Oliver said that he was hoping Cruz would be at his offices, but he instead met someone who identified themself as one of the senator's staff advisers, who told him that the lawmaker was currently at the Capitol.
Recently the nation has seen a renewed surge of mass shootings throughout the country, from the horrifying elementary school shooting in Uvalde to the recent 4th of July shooting in Highland Park, Illinois. Part of Oliver’s goal was to put pressure on officials like Cruz and Marco Rubio to renounce funding from the NRA and to enact legislation for universal background checks.
“It’s a shame on us as a nation,” Oliver said. “We are at a point where any option is a miracle. The latest gun measures, we all know it was not enough. The guys that wrote it knew it was not enough. We think of ourselves as the most powerful nation in the world — and I hate that we’re OK with solutions that are clearly not enough.”
Gun violence is the leading cause of death for American children; there have already been over 300 mass shootings this year alone. The bus fleet, which traveled to Cruz’s home and Houston office today, hopes to highlight the scale of loss, and the emphasis on how young and innocent their lives were.
“I believe young people will make sure gun violence will not be part of their futures,” Oliver said. “But we need to help them build a foundation to get there.”
Speaking to the press outside of Cruz’s offices, Oliver revealed that this will be the first of many stops at various pro-gun government leaders’ spaces. “If you’re a senator and you believe the things that are happening are OK, look out for a yellow school bus that will be outside your office,” he said. ●
Correction: 4,368 children have been killed by gun violence since 2020. An earlier version of this post misstated that number as occurring just this year.