What’s Happening in Nashville?

Guns Are Everywhere

By Barbara Kaiser and Judy Sklar Rasminsky

In Nashville, the police did everything right, yet six people—three adults and three 9-year-olds—died at Covenant School anyway.

Thanks to regular rehearsals with the fire department, medical staff, dispatchers, and others (the latest practice only a week before the shooting), the police force was prepared for the shooter. It took them just 14 minutes from the time of the first 911 call to track down and kill the assailant, a 28-year-old former student at the school.

The police were clearly remembering what had happened in May in Uvalde, Texas, where 19 children and two teachers perished while police waited more than an hour to confront the gunman. “We knew we couldn’t wait,” said Chief John Drake of the Metropolitan Nashville Police Department. 

Their performance was textbook perfect. But it couldn’t prevent the deaths, and the citizens of Nashville let everyone know how upset and angry they were. More than a thousand of them—high school and college students, elementary school children and their parents, mothers with toddlers, ordinary people—marched on the Tennessee Capitol, demanding tighter gun laws.

With signs that read “We want to live through high school,”  “Book bags not body bags,” and “2nd graders over 2nd Amendment,” they asked why their Republican legislators were extending greater access to firearms than any other state was providing. Inside the legislature itself, three Democratic lawmakers demonstrated for gun control and two of them were ousted from their jobs, unleashing protests nationwide.

What is happening to our country?

So far this year there have already been at least 163 mass shootings (defined as four or more fatalities, not including the perpetrator). Fourteen of these were school shootings, according to the Gun Violence Archive. We have seen more mass shootings than days in 2023.

We are living with the reality that firearms are the leading cause of death in children aged 1 to 19. Violence seems to have become a suitable way to handle problems. People are being shot in banks, grocery stores, Sweet Sixteen parties, for merely chasing a basketball into a neighbor’s yard or knocking on the wrong door or turning a car around in the wrong driveway. 

What could account for this?

One possible explanation might be that we are suffering from the effects of three long years of Covid 19 with its lockdowns, illness, and deaths, as well as inflation and the loss of now expiring government supports. The result is that our stress response—the body’s normal way of dealing with danger—is totally out of whack. 

Its job is to protect us from danger by secreting the hormone cortisol, which enables the body to deal with threats instantly. Cortisol triggers the fight, flight, and freeze reaction, mobilizing heart rate, blood pressure, glucose, and muscle tone. When the danger has passed, the stress response usually shuts down and returns the brain and the body to their normal calm state. 

But when there is trauma or toxic stress—when fear is chronic and stress is unmanageable, intense, frequent, sizeable, and/or prolonged—the stress response does not shut down. It continues to feel unsafe and remains on hyperalert, suspicious of the environment. This state of affairs changes the brain and affects relationships, sensory processing, learning, and behavior.

Most of us have no idea that this could be happening. We don’t recognize the symptoms of trauma and toxic stress in ourselves or in the children we care for who seem unable to control their behavior: We are all exhausted, jumpy, easily overwhelmed, unable to concentrate, sad, spacey, unpredictable, defensive, even aggressive. 

If we are struggling with our own behavior, imagine how hard it is for these children with their high cortisol levels. We can’t support them unless we can understand our own stress levels and regulate our own emotions. People who can’t control their own responses just react. If a gun is nearby, they may use it, especially if its use is habitual. 

What else could cause this explosion of aggression?

This violent behavior has another much more obvious explanation: the omnipresence of guns, all kinds of guns—but especially AR-15 rifles and handguns with high-capacity magazines that enable people to do more killing in a shorter time and which fire “bullets at such a high velocity — often in a barrage of 30 or even 100 in rapid succession — [that]. . . a single bullet lands with a shock wave intense enough to blow apart a skull and demolish vital organs.” 

In many states, including Tennessee, some of these weapons are available to just about anyone who wants them, no age limit, no mandatory permit, no background check required, no red flag rules that enable police to confiscate guns from anyone who presents a danger to himself or others, no laws that ensure guns are properly locked up. After all, the Nashville shooter was able to purchase seven guns and rifles legally.

Such restrictions seem to be happening only in our dreams. And after a shooting, contrary to what we might think, states expand access to guns, although researchers have repeatedly found that “a gun in the house makes people more likely to be murdered, not less,” as the New York Times put it.

What can we do in this situation?

The police are doing their part. Now we have to persuade politicians to do theirs and ban assault weapons. We do not live in a war zone; we do not need them. Instead of loosening gun laws after a shooting, we should be tightening them. 

Let us applaud and join the 162 mayors who just sent a letter to Congress urging action on gun safety legislation. “How many children must die, how many adults must die before our nation takes action to reduce gun violence?” they wrote. “We must and we can do more to protect people from this senseless slaughter…. The time for Congress to act is now. Our children deserve better.”