NASHVILLE - A shooter armed with two AR-style weapons and a handgun killed three students and three adults at a private Christian school in Nashville on Monday, the latest deadly rampage in a nation anguished by the regularity of mass killings but deeply divided over how to stop them.
Police identified the shooter as Audrey Elizabeth Hale, 28, of Nashville. Hale was shot and killed by police who responded to the Covenant School, a small academy housed within a Presbyterian church that served about 200 students from preschool to sixth grade.
John Drake, chief of the Metropolitan Nashville Police Department, said law enforcement officials were working to determine a motive but said Hale had attended the school. During a search of Hale’s home, he said, officers recovered a “manifesto” and maps that appeared to include entry points for the school. Police later said they recovered additional material in a car Hale drove to the scene.
Drake said Hale was transgender. Asked if that had played a role in what he described as a “targeted attack,” Drake said it was part of the police investigation.
“There is some theory to that,” Drake said. But, he added, “We’re investigating all the leads, and once we know exactly, we will let you know.”
Don Aaron, a police spokesman, later clarified the chief’s remarks. “Audrey Hale is a biological woman who, on a social media profile, used male pronouns,” Aaron said in an email.
Police identified the victims as students Evelyn Dieckhaus, Hallie Scruggs and William Kinney, all 9; and staff members Cynthia Peak, 61; Katherine Koonce, 60; and Mike Hill, 61.
Koonce was the longtime head of Covenant, according to the school’s website. Peak was a substitute teacher, while Hill was a custodian, police said.
Nashville Mayor John Cooper, speaking at one of several news conferences Monday, called it the “worst day” and a “dark hour” for the city, but he praised first responders including police officers who ran toward the gunfire to try to stop it.
“Even in a remarkably fast response, there was not enough time. And those guns stole precious lives from us today,” Cooper said.
The incident unfolded over less than 15 minutes in a leafy suburban area about 10 miles south of central Nashville. Police said they received a 911 call about a shooter at the school at 10:13 a.m. Dozens of emergency vehicles arrived at the scene, and officers entering on the first floor of the school heard gunfire coming from the second floor, police said.
Five officers proceeded upstairs into a lobby-type area where they confronted Hale, who fired at them, police said. Two officers fired back, fatally shooting Hale, who was pronounced dead at 10:27 a.m.
Police initially described Hale as appearing to be a teenager before revising the age upward to 28.
According to police, Hale gained access to the school by firing through a first-floor side door before opening fire inside the building. It was not immediately clear what security procedures were in place at the school or whether, like schools across the nation in a siege of shootings, it had fortified itself against attack.
Unlike public schools in Nashville, the private school did not have a public safety officer on-site, according to police.
Police later released photos of the scene, including images showing a shattered glass door with bullet holes where they said Hale gained entry into the building. The department also shared photos of police cars with bullet holes and shattered glass, saying Hale fired on responding officers as they arrived.
The shooting was captured on surveillance video, a portion of which was made public late Monday. The footage showed a person the police identified as Hale arriving at the school, dressed partially in camouflage. The video then showed the shooter firing on the glass door, entering the building and going through the hallways while holding an assault rifle.
A police spokesman declined to say where the victims were found, including whether a specific classroom had been targeted. But in a Monday afternoon news conference, Drake said police found material that suggested Hale had considered an attack at another location but ruled it out because there was “too much security.”
Police said Hale was armed with two semiautomatic weapons - an AR-15-style rifle, an “AR-style pistol” and a handgun. At least two of the weapons were purchased legally, according to Drake, who did not give the status of the third. He said Hale had “multiple rounds of ammunition prepared for confrontation with law enforcement” and was “prepared to do more harm.”
The department late Monday released images of the weapons, adding that Hale had “significant ammunition.”
Tennessee’s gun laws, like those in many conservative states, are comparatively loose. The state allows people to own semiautomatic and automatic weapons, although automatic weapons are harder to purchase and require a license from the federal government. The state does not ban high-capacity magazines.
In 2022, Guns & Ammo - a magazine dedicated to firearms and ammunitions - ranked Tennessee as the 12th-best state in the country for gun owners. The state recently allowed residents to carry handguns in public without a permit. State officials are considering lowering the age to carry handguns without a permit from 21 to 18, according to the Associated Press.
The incident was the latest tragedy in a country spinning on an endless carousel of mass violence, including bloodshed in schools, hospitals and virtually every gathering place. At the scene, in the Green Hills section of Nashville, cameras captured views eerily similar to those that have played out in other cities that have dealt with mass violence, including Uvalde, Tex., and Newtown, Conn., including footage of children holding hands and being led away from school under heavy guard.
Scores of police cars and ambulances went to the scene as officers in body armor and carrying long guns checked a wooded area next to the school. Local television reported that some of the children had run into the woods to escape the gunfire.
Frantic parents were seen abandoning their cars and running toward the scene in search of their children.
John Wilkinson, 45, was at his chiropractor across the street when he saw a single police car crest the hill near the school. Within seconds, five other police cars had arrived. Within five minutes, there were at least 50 police cars at the scene, he said, as officers entered the building.
“They were showing unbelievable courage,” Wilkinson said.
An officer then entered the building Wilkinson was visiting and told those inside to lock the doors, he said.
After 20 minutes, he said, the first of six ambulances left the scene under police escort. About 20 to 30 minutes after that, he said, other ambulances left, unaccompanied.
Dozens of public school buses eventually ferried children to a reunification point at nearby Woodmont Baptist Church, where parents waited and others went to check on friends who worked at the school. Many of the children inside were crying.
James Jardin, a campus minister at Western Kentucky University in Bowling Green, was in a meeting when he heard about the shooting at Covenant, where his friend is a minister who teaches music. He left his meeting and drove to Nashville.
Jardin said his friend assured him he was all right - he texted, “I’m OK, please pray for me” - at about 10:30 a.m. local time. Jardin tried to enter the reunification center but was turned away. “There is nothing I can do,” the minister said.
Gillian Stewart said that her friend has a kindergartner who attends Covenant and that the friend described to her the chaos of parents trying to pick up their children. “It was a mad rush to pick up their kids. Cars were abandoned everywhere,” Stewart said.
She was still looking for her friend. “I haven’t seen her yet,” Stewart, outside the reunification center, said through tears.
The Nashville attack drew anguished responses from across the nation, including in Washington, where President Biden called Monday’s shooting “a family’s worst nightmare” and repeated his call for Congress to pass gun-control legislation that includes a ban on assault rifles. He ordered all American flags displayed at government buildings to be flown at half-staff.
“We have to do more to stop gun violence - it’s ripping our communities apart, ripping the soul of this nation,” Biden said during a White House event on women in business. “We have to do more to protect our schools, so they aren’t turned into prisons.”
Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.), of nearby Brentwood, said in a Twitter message that she was “heartbroken” about the killings.
“Please join us in prayer for those affected,” Blackburn wrote. Her message drew the ire of gun-control activists and musicians with Nashville ties, including singer Sheryl Crow, who responded to Blackburn’s tweet.
“If you are ready to assist, please pass sensible gun laws so that the children of Tennessee and America at large might attend school without risk of being gunned down,” Crow wrote.