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Before I get to my thoughts about Monday’s mass shooting at Nashville’s Covenant School, I want to tell you about a Twitter friend. Let’s call him Hank—and Hank if you are reading this, and if you recognize yourself, which you surely will—I want you to know that every day I think about you and your family with love.
Every day. I mean that, buddy.
I have never met Hank in person, but we have discussed politics in private messages since Donald Trump was elected president in 2016. Hank is a diehard MAGA (although he has now switched his allegiance to Florida Governor Ron DeSantis.) He is a patriot, a man of faith, and a passionate 2A supporter. He likes to take cruises. He sends me cute pictures of his cats.
Most of all, Hank loves his family more than life itself. And Hank has often compared me favorably to his daughter, a professional woman living and working in an open carry state, who was a liberal and an activist with a professional life centered on promoting social justice. Among other things, Hank’s daughter persuaded him that LGBT people deserved rights: indirectly, she is probably responsible for Hank wanting to know who the person behind this Substack newsletter was.
Then Hank disappeared for about six weeks, and when he returned, I learned that this fine, beautiful young woman, whose father adored her beyond measure, was now dead. An ex-boyfriend walked into her apartment, shot her, and then shot himself. According to reports, when the police arrived, he still had the empty gun holster (remember, this is an open carry state) strapped to his waist. The f*cking bastard.
Hank is devastated. And even though we have discussed so many complicated things, the question I cannot ask—because it is too cruel, or I am too much of a coward, or both—is: what do you think of Second Amendment absolutism now? How do you square support for gun ownership, virtually without restriction, with this terrible, unjust tragedy?
Instead, I posed this question to another right-wing friend, and this is what he said. “It’s horrible,” my friend conceded. “Horrible. But if the guy really wanted to kill her, and he didn’t have a gun, he would have stabbed her or run her over with a car.”
As you are catching your breath, I want to explain something: this is a normal exchange about gun violence to have with people on the right, people who are not fascists, who are religious, and who love their grandmothers. It stems not from ignorance, poor morals, or love for violence but from a dark (and, to my mind, highly deluded) worldview. They will explain that the world is a terrible place, with evil people who do evil deeds, and because of this, people will inevitably die.
There are no institutional solutions for evil, they will tell you; the only possible response is to save yourself. Don’t be a victim. Get a gun. When your number comes up, you will not be one of the sheep led to the slaughter (or the “sheeple,” as they call us). You will have a fighting chance.
Alternatively, if you are shot and weren’t carrying, you only have yourself to blame. In the end, it’s a question of personal responsibility.
But it’s also a shell game, one in which violence is a natural part of life, and responsibility for the nearly 10,000 people killed by gun violence so far this year lands on everyone but the gun industry, the National Rifle Association’s paid lobbyists, and a Republican party dripping with gun money.
This coalition of the greedy has perpetrated a spectacular fraud on the American people.
So let’s return to Audrey Elizabeth Hale, 28, a graduate of the Covenant School, who returned to her alma mater on Monday carrying two long guns and a pistol. The school had been, as Texas Senator Ted Cruz likes to say, “hardened:” the doors were locked. But Hale, like Honey Badger, didn’t give a sh*t. Instead, Hale blew through the glass door with one of two AR-15s and commenced the search for potential victims.
Fortunately, the school’s lockdown drills, expertly executed, limited the damage, as did the quick arrival of a trained tactical squad. Nevertheless, before being trapped and killed by police, Audrey killed three nine-year-old students and three adults.
Conservative media outlets are spinning the story that transgender ideology, not the fact that Hale had access to deadly weapons, is at fault for the shooting. Although it’s unclear what Hale’s gender status was, they had changed their pronouns to “him/he” on their LinkedIn profile and were calling themselves Aidan on TikTok.
Interestingly, on March 2, Tennessee governor Bill Lee signed a bill banning drag shows and gender-affirming medical care for minors. So, there is unfounded speculation that Hale snapped under the pressure of Republican transphobia.
Conservatives have gleefully gone down this rabbit hole: it wasn’t the guns; it was the inability to face the biological reality of gender! Of course, we have no evidence that Hale was in physical transition, but this did not deter anti-trans politician Jeff Younger, who is such a whack job that even Texans won’t vote for him. Younger, who fought a public custody battle with his wife over an allegedly trans child, explains, “When you pump a woman full of testosterone, you don’t get a rational man. Instead, you get the same emotional woman with male aggression, a feeling creature with no wall of reason to contain the monsters in her Id.”
Queer conservative journalist Andy Ngô added incoherently: “Women committing mass shootings are exceptionally rare, but if Audrey`Aiden’ Hale took testosterone, it could explain part of the male-typical mass violence [of] the Christian school, tragically[.]”
It wasn’t the gun; it was the T—and to my delight, Representative Marjorie Taylor Green (GA-14) actually said this in the endearingly ungrammatical way that persuades you she manages her own account. “How much hormones like testosterone and medications for mental illness was the transgender Nashville school shooter taking?” Green tweeted. “Everyone can stop blaming guns now.”
Yet another conservative effort to distract us from our gun-saturated society is to spin this unnecessary tragedy as a success story for the police. Nashville police trained effectively for such an event, and because of that, only six people were killed. Only six! Yay! “Nashville police show other police forces how it’s done,” the Washington Examiner trumpeted in a headline.
Even liberal outlets are promoting a “Back the Blue” narrative that reassures the nation that, to paraphrase, not everywhere has to be Uvalde. “The law enforcement response in Nashville stood in stark contrast with the events that unfolded last year at Robb Elementary School, where officers waited 77 minutes before confronting and killing the shooter,” gushed ABC News.
It’s not the guns, people—it’s incompetent, cowardly police who don’t take out the bad guy fast enough. “For the second time in 10 months, police officers were called to confront a mass killer at an American elementary school,” Robert Klemko reported in the Washington Post. “But this time, unlike [those stinking cowards—ed.] last spring in Uvalde, Tex., the officers at the Covenant School in Nashville rushed right in.”
Sadly, the United States, its media, and its governing institutions have more or less capitulated to the conservative gun narrative that the proliferation of guns is never the cause of gun violence. Instead, it’s guns in the hands of the wrong people or not enough guns in the hands of the right people.
But there is another truth we must face after the Covenant School shooting: liberal compromises with the gun industry don’t keep us safe, either.
Look at the facts. In a piece published at Yahoo News, Dan Ludden cites a staggering number of signs that Hale was dangerous and an equally staggering list of failures on the part of those who were aware and made aware of that. The morning of the shooting, Hale “sent a series of dark messages to a friend in the minutes leading up to the attack,” which the friend frantically reported to the authorities, to no effect. One, sent through Instagram, said: “I’m planning to die today. THIS IS NOT A JOKE!!!!” Another read: “You’ll probably hear about me on the news after I die. This is my last goodbye. I love you. See you again in another life.”
The friend called a police emergency line and was put on hold for seven minutes. An investigator finally arrived hours after the shootings.
In psychological treatment for an unspecified “emotional disorder,” Hale easily and legally purchased seven guns. They lived with their parents and had long been known to suffer from suicidality. Tennessee has no red flag laws that would ban such a person from purchasing a gun, but who would have made the report? Incredibly, although police found extensive writings, a map of the school, and four other weapons in their home, Hale’s parents say they did not know their child was armed. Their “parents felt she should not own weapons…they were under the impression that when she sold the one weapon that she did not own any more,” explained police chief John Drake. “As it turned out, [they] had been hiding several weapons within the house.”
My question: how do you successfully hide seven guns, several almost three feet long, “around the house?” And when Hale’s mother saw her adult child walking out of the house on Monday with a huge, clanking, red bag—which she did—why did she do nothing?
But what you can’t say is: it wasn’t the guns; it was the parents. Because, in the end, without the guns, six people in Nashville would be alive today.
I wish I could talk to my friend Hank about it. He would still disagree with me, I think. But I can’t bear to ask him. He just buried his daughter.
Claire Bond Potter is Professor of Historical Studies at The New School for Social Research and co-Executive Editor of Public Seminar. Her most recent book is Political Junkies: From Talk Radio to Twitter, How Alternative Media Hooked Us on Politics and Broke Our Democracy (Basic Books, 2020).
An earlier version of this article first appeared on Claire Potter’s Substack, Political Junkie, on March 29, 2023.