Guest Editorial: Will the Nashville school shooting finally change things?

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It has been a rough week in Nashville.

On Monday morning, I was finalizing my weekly update on a few important issues before the Tennessee General Assembly when word began to spread about the nation’s latest school shooting.

Focused on my report about the legislative issues I am following as the executive director of the Tennessee Catholic Conference, I had initially ignored a breaking news alert from a local TV station because those are so often overwrought promotions for silly stories. A couple of minutes later, a contact from an international wire service called to ask if I was available to get to the scene to help with their coverage of the shooting at a school in Green Hills. I explained that I was not able to help and gave him contacts for a few other photographers. I immediately refocused my efforts so I could assist Bishop J. Mark Spalding and the Diocese of Nashville’s Catholic Schools Office respond to the fast-changing story.

In the aftermath of the shooting, some points have become clear.

• Three 9-year-old children and three dedicated, caring adults on The Covenant School’s staff died as apparently random victims of an attack on the school for a motive that so far has not been released by authorities.

• A 28-year-old former student reportedly under some form of mental health treatment legally purchased seven firearms, including two assault rifles and a handgun used in the cowardly attack.

• The administration at The Covenant School protected most of their community and supported first responders addressing the shooting.

• Officers from the Metro Nashville Police Department demonstrated heroic virtue, immediately moving toward the gunfire to confront the shooter and ending the threat. Their professionalism and training saved countless lives.

In the aftermath of the shooting:

• Legislators and government officials at the federal and state level have said that now is not the time to address gun violence.

• The Tennessee General Assembly has delayed, for one week, consideration of a slate of bills, many of which would expand the availability of guns across the state.

Our first response to the disgust and nagging sadness that we felt after the latest wave of mass violence that has hit so close to home was to offer our prayers and support for the victims, their families, and the community. Now, we are all looking for effective steps that we can take to be sure that this never happens again. We have received conflicting suggestions from several active Catholics in the Nashville area asking us to:

• Back a call for a ban on assault rifles and other limits on components of the weapons that make them so deadly.

• Understand that the U.S. Constitution protects the right of individuals to own firearms.

• Support the effort to arm teachers.

• Oppose the effort to allow teachers to carry firearms.

On a positive note, Gov. Bill Lee’s office is reportedly considering a proposal to provide police officers to every public and private school in the state. This would enhance the broad, systematic security and training efforts that Catholic schools already have in place to protect our students and teachers.

What is so sadly obvious is that deadly shootings like the one Nashville is suffering through have become all too common. The Gun Violence Archive, a nonprofit group that tracks gun violence across the country, has reported that the Nashville shooting was the nation’s 130th so far this year in which at least four people were killed or injured.

In the wake of last year’s horrific school shooting in Uvalde, Texas, when an 18-year-old armed with an AR-15 rifle shot and killed 19 students and two teachers, four bishops who chair committees for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops wrote a joint letter to Congress pleading for action to protect our citizens.

“There is something deeply wrong with a culture where these acts of violence are increasingly common,” the bishops wrote. “There must be dialogue followed by concrete action to bring about a broader social renewal that addresses all aspects of the crisis, including mental health, the state of families, the valuation of life, the influence of entertainment and gaming industries, bullying, and the availability of firearms.” 

Their call for action was nothing new for the USCCB. For years, the country’s Catholic bishops have advocated for changes in the law that would make our communities safer. We have shared the same message with Tennessee legislators. So far, the USCCB’s calls for change at the national level and ours in Tennessee have gone unanswered.

Please know we’re not giving up. The Tennessee Catholic Conference will continue to engage with legislators and state officials to encourage solutions to this epidemic of violence.

Given the prevalence of guns in our society, there will be no quick fixes. Sensible gun laws, support for mental health services, and enhanced security in our public gathering spaces will all have to be part of any successful solution.

In their letter last year, the U.S. bishops urged Congress to adopt several specific measures, including:

• A total ban on assault weapons and limitations on civilian access to high-capacity weapons and ammunition magazines.  

• Universal background checks for all gun purchases. 

• Passing a law to criminalize gun trafficking. 

• Raising the minimum age for gun ownership. 

• A ban on bump stocks or other equipment that can dramatically increase a gun’s rate of firing. 

• Improved mental health care access and resources. 

• Passage of the Federal Extreme Risk Protection Order Act, which would authorize federal courts to issue federal extreme risk protection orders prohibiting at-risk individuals from purchasing and possessing firearms.

The bishops of the three dioceses of Tennessee – Nashville, Memphis, and Knoxville – have joined their brother bishops across the nation in calling for steps that reduce the violence that is plaguing us. But it will take more than laws. It will take each of us, in our own lives and communities, confronting the culture of violence that holds our society in such a deadly grip.

Columbine didn’t convince us that we must act to protect our communities, especially our children. Sandy Hook didn’t convince us. Parkland didn’t convince us. Uvalde didn’t convince us. We pray that Nashville and The Covenant School finally will.

Rick Musacchio is the executive director of the Tennessee Catholic Conference, which advocates on public policy issues on behalf of the Dioceses of Nashville, Memphis, and Knoxville with local, state and federal officials. He was the long-time editor in chief of the Tennessee Register.

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