How did the Nashville shooter legally purchase firearms?

The Nashville shooter purchased seven guns from five stores before the mass shooting at a Christian school, and there is mounting evidence that those purchases could have and should have been prevented.

Nashville police said the shooter had been in a “doctor’s care for an emotional disorder.” The parents of the shooter believed their daughter should not own firearms because of that emotional disorder, and believed she did not own any. 

Both federal and Tennessee state law ban the sale of firearms to anyone who has been adjudicated to be a threat to themselves or others. Had the parents, or the shooter’s doctor, or anyone else taken legal action to have the shooter deemed “mentally defective” under the law, she would not have been able to purchase the firearms used in the massacre.

Nashville police chief John Drake held a press conference Tuesday and said that the parents of the shooter told the police the shooter had been in a “doctor’s care for an emotional disorder.” The parents reportedly told police that they believed their daughter should not own guns and did not believe that she had any; they believed their child had purchased one gun and then sold it. The shooter reportedly told her parents that she had sold the firearm.

(The shooter was born a woman but chose to use male pronouns; I notice publications such as The Daily Beast are referring to the shooter as a “daughter” and then using the pronoun “he” in the same article. For simplicity and clarity’s sake, I am sticking to female pronouns.)

The police chief did not elaborate on the emotional disorder, which doctor was providing the shooter care, or whether the shooter was on any medication. It is chillingly clear in retrospect that the shooter should have been institutionalized, or at minimum, legally ruled a potential threat to herself or others.

Drake said his department would’ve tried to take the shooter’s guns away if officers had caught wind of her intentions, but, “As it stands, we had absolutely no idea who this person was.”

Under federal law, it is illegal for “any person to sell or otherwise dispose of any firearm or ammunition to any person knowing or having reasonable cause to believe that such person, including as a juvenile” who has “been adjudicated as a mental defective or has been committed to any mental institution at 16 years of age or older.”

“Mental defective” is a term you don’t hear often anymore, and some may find it offensive, but under federal law, it has a specific meaning: a finding by any court, board, commission, or other lawful authority that a person “is a danger to himself or to others; or lacks the mental capacity to contract or manage his own affairs,” as a result of “marked subnormal intelligence, or mental illness, incompetency, condition, or disease.”

The Nashville shooter was, indisputably, a danger to others, and that threat to others was almost certainly connected to her mental illness. The evidence was there for her to be declared legally mentally defective and barred from owning firearms. The shooter’s parents believed she should not be allowed to own a firearm, indicating the shooter had said or done things that made her parents believe she was a potential threat to herself or others. But no one acted upon those concerns, and no one reached out to police.

Tennessee does not have a “red flag” law that would allow police to seize the firearms of individuals that are at elevated risk of harming themselves or others. However, under Tennessee law, anyone who has been deemed “mental defective” cannot purchase a firearm in the first place.

Under Tennessee law, only an applicant who has not been “judicially committed to or hospitalized in a mental institution . . . has not had a court appoint a conservator for the applicant by reason of a mental defect, has not been judicially determined to be disabled by reason of mental illness, developmental disability or other mental incapacity, and has not, within seven years from the date of application, been found by a court to pose an immediate substantial likelihood of serious harm” may be granted a handgun-carry permit. Tennessee law also requires all relevant information in the adjudication of a mental defective to be turned over to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System.

You can argue that Tennessee should have a “red flag” law, but those laws only work if a concerned person goes to law enforcement and says, “I am afraid this person is a threat to themselves or others, and you must act to remove their firearms.” The process also usually requires convincing a judge. Alas, far too few people take those steps, apparently convincing themselves that the person they are concerned about will just get better on his or her own.

As of late last year, 19 states and the District of Columbia had red-flag laws; an Associated Press review found that, “Many U.S. states barely use the red flag laws.” In Chicago, “Amid more than 8,500 shootings resulting in 1,800 deaths since 2020, the law was used there just four times.”

As with every other mass shooting, many on the left side of the aisle will insist that horrors such as the one in Nashville could be avoided by passing by more gun-control laws. But a law is only as effective as its enforcement.

This morning, the Washington Post investigates why federal prosecutors in the District’s U.S. attorney’s office “chose not to prosecute 67 percent of those arrested by police officers in cases that would have been tried in D.C. Superior Court.” That is up from 35 percent in 2017, and much, much higher than other large cities in the United States.

Matthew M. Graves, the Biden-appointed U.S. attorney for D.C., told the Post that his office is prioritizing violent crimes, and “declinations are mostly coming after arrests in cases such as gun possession, drug possession and burglaries.”

This suggests that the actual enforcement of laws against illegal gun possession does not align with the rhetoric surrounding these laws. None of the traditional excuses apply here. This is a Biden-appointed prosecutor in a city where Biden beat Trump, 92 percent to 5 percent. Effectively, there are no Republicans in the District of Columbia. It is very difficult to believe that Graves is insufficiently motivated to prosecute illegal-gun-possession cases or has any ideological reluctance to enforce the district’s existing gun laws. He was assistant U.S. attorney in the district from 2007 to 2016. Democratic House delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton recommended Graves to Biden. He is not afraid of losing the endorsement of the National Rifle Association. There is no significant movement within D.C. arguing against enforcement of gun laws.

I hate writing about mass shootings for many reasons, but one big reason is that the story is almost always the same. A young person — usually a man, but as we see in Nashville, the YouTube headquarters shooting, and the Goleta postal-facility mass shooting, there are exceptions — is angry at the world. Oftentimes they have psychiatric, mental, or emotional problems, sometimes formally diagnosed and treated, often just noticed or suspected by others. The shooters face problems in their lives, but their problems are fairly mundane, not all that different from the problems everyone else faces: stress from school or work, bullying, a sense of isolation. They are often “grievance collectors,” to use the term of Willard Gaylin, one of the world’s preeminent psychology professors. They cannot see any good in their lives, or any blessings to count. They fixate on how they have been wronged and how life has been unfair to them, and they nurture a rage over their perceived victimization.

These individuals almost never have a terrific support network, but they do have at least a few people who care and worry about them. In interviews after the shooting, the family members, neighbors, classmates, and acquaintances often describe genuinely disturbing behavior that probably warranted a call to police. The shooter’s social-media feed often features them with guns, images of violence, and all kinds of nightmarish images of rage and retribution. Oftentimes, particularly in school shootings, the perpetrator will have developed an interest or obsession with the shooters at Columbine. In a disturbing number of cases, the shooter was “known to law enforcement” because of some sort of minor criminal behavior that may or may not have been prosecuted. Sometimes, there are past suicide attempts. Quite a few times, fellow students or co-workers have gone to a teacher, principal, college or university administrator, or company HR office to complain about the person’s behavior or threats.

Perhaps one of the reasons these shooters commit these heinous and abominable acts is because they feel their lives are too mundane, and that dying in a horrific act of violence will somehow make them stand out or become special. The irony is that being a mass shooter isn’t all that rare or unique anymore.
Dan Butcher

Dan Butcher is the editor and publisher of High Plains Pundit. Dan is also the host of the popular High Plains Pundit Podcast.

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