I settled down at my desk last Monday to write a column about cane toads in Florida. Then I heard some breaking news out of Nashville, news so horrible that I tucked the toad column away and began writing about the school shooting that was happening just a stone’s throw from where I grew up.
Like every person with a heart in his or her chest, I’m puzzled and heartbroken and very, very angry over the senseless loss of innocent lives at Nashville’s Covenant Presbyterian School. How can such an unthinkable tragedy happen so close to home?
Here’s how. In this instance, it happened because a troubled individual with no criminal record was able to legally purchase assault-style weapons, shoot into the school’s side entrance and then randomly mow down as many people as possible before police arrived. Could Audrey Hale have committed this heinous crime without guns? Could Audrey have breached a locked exterior door and quickly and easily killed three adults and three nine-year-olds with a knife or an ice pick or a crossbow?
Almost certainly not.
Here are some statistics to consider when we talk about firearm deaths. In the first three months of 2023, there have already been 13 school shootings in the United States, resulting in the deaths of six children and four adults. Since the shooting at Columbine High School in 1999, there have been 376 school shootings in this country. In total, 63 children have died JUST THIS YEAR as a result of gun violence. By the time this paper hits the newsstands, or your mailbox as the case may be, those numbers will almost certainly have grown higher.
Every time it happens, far too many lawmakers and news commentators and anyone with a social media account shake their heads in a sad sort of way and blame the deaths on anything and everything but the guns. “Guns don’t kill people,” they insist. “People kill people.” They shed crocodile tears and offer heartfelt thoughts and prayers and praise first responders and gather in candlelight vigils for the dead.
And when all that is over, nothing changes except the location of the next shooting.
Complicating the search for a motive in the horrific murders at Covenant School is the fact that the 28-year-old shooter, Audrey Elizabeth Hale, identified as a transgender male. Audrey, a former student at Covenant, also went by the name “Aiden” and used the pronouns “he” and “him.” It is not our business to know the details of Audrey’s struggles with sexual identity. But we do know that lawmakers in Tennessee have made it increasingly difficult for member of the LGBTQ community to feel affirmed and valued. They’ve passed laws making it essentially impossible for some LGBTQ individuals to receive medical care as it relates to their sexual health, which also encompasses mental health.
None of which excuses the atrocities Audrey Hale committed last Monday, but it might help explain them. As I prepare to send this column to my editor, the contents of Audrey’s “Manifesto” have not yet been made public. We do know that Audrey messaged a childhood friend just minutes before the massacre. “Something bad is about to happen. I’m planning to die today,” Audrey wrote. “One day this will all make sense.”
For me, it never will. Nor can I make sense of any other school shooting. We can blame violent video games or too many exterior school doors or not enough School Resource Officers or a million other things, some of which might make a difference. But what we really need to focus on is the one thing all school shootings have in common.
Guns. Because until we stop making it as easy to buy a firearm as it is to buy a loaf of bread, the carnage will continue.
(April 1, 2023)