Opinion: Tennessee school shooting data should not preclude action on gun legislation

AP File Photo/Mark Humphrey / Students protest gun violence in schools at the legislative plaza and state Capitol in Nashville Monday, April 3, 2023, a week after six people were killed by a shooter at The Covenant School, a private Presbyterian school.

A new study on school shootings in Tennessee over the last 25 years shows that half of the 12 fatalities over the period occurred at The Covenant School in Nashville in March.

State Rep. John Ragan, R-Oak Ridge, requested the study by the Tennessee Comptroller of the Treasury's Office of Research and Education Accountability ahead of the General Assembly's special session, which begins Aug. 21, "to focus our attention on evidence and data ... rather than emotions."

The results of the study come as some legislators are casting doubt on whether lawmakers will be able to pass any type of order of protection law, as suggested by Gov. Bill Lee. They see passage of such a law as a product of emotion over the Covenant School shooting.

Among the study's conclusions:

— The 49 school shootings produced 12 non-perpetrator fatalities.

— More than half of the shootings involved students or former students.

— More than four out of 10 shootings involved dispute escalations.

— More than three-fourths of the shootings occurred at high schools.

— More than two-thirds of shootings occurred at urban schools.

— Slightly less than half of the shootings occurred inside a school building.

To our way of thinking, the data is not at odds with a bill seeking an order of protection law, which — through due process and a burden of proof to preserve the Second Amendment — ensures dangerous individuals who are known to be a threat to themselves or others do not have access to weapons.

However, Lee recently said an order of protection bill would not be the sole focus of the special session. He also hopes to introduce legislation on violent crime, mental health and juvenile justice.

The study showed that only three — three too many, of course — of the 49 shootings met the database's definition of "active shooter," which the FBI defines as one or more individuals actively engaged in killing or attempting to kill people in a populated area.

The study's list of all school shootings showed that two occurred in Chattanooga, one an attempted suicide at East Ridge High School in 2007 and one at Brainerd High School in 2022.

In the 2007 incident, a former custodian at the school entered the building about an hour after classes were dismissed and shot himself in the chest with a handgun. In the 2022 occurrence, gunfire in the school parking lot on a Saturday left multiple vehicles damaged.

Of the 49 shootings, 21 were in the cities of Memphis and Nashville.

In addition to the 12 overall fatalities in the shootings, 27 people were injured.

We appreciate Ragan's desire to bring data to the special session, especially in light of what is too often a rush to judgment about shooters or the reason a shooting occurs.

Take Monday's incident at a Jewish school in Memphis, for example.

A would-be shooter approached the Margolin Hebrew Academy, a pre-K through 12 school, and failed to gain entry but opened fire outside the facility. He eventually was shot and wounded by police.

Learning of the shooting, U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Memphis, issued a news release.

"I am shocked to know of this senseless incident and relieved at reports that no one at the school was injured," he said. "Antisemitism is on the rise in this country. I am astonished and saddened that an apparent act of violent antisemitism has come to Memphis. We all need to be on our guard against antisemitism and white nationalism."

It turned out the shooter was Jewish and a former student at the school.

Cohen didn't apologize but did acknowledge the shooter's background and said he was "pleased the academy had effective security and that the police acted quickly to protect students."

Antisemitism in America is on the rise and has reared its ugly head in incidents that have killed and injured people throughout the country, but falsely accusing as the House member did only makes people want to hold their guns a little tighter and keeps lawmakers from opening their eyes to any reasonable legislative proposal involving firearms.

Ragan forwarded his data from the Office of Research and Education Accountability to members of the House and Senate with a letter in which he said, "Notwithstanding inflammatory rhetoric, logic demands relatively a balanced, proportional and reasonable approach" toward legislation, especially considering that illegal drugs and illegally operating a vehicle while under the influence of alcohol and drugs kill more people annually than homicides committed with guns.

He further warned that mental illness — for which a gun might be temporarily taken — "may not unmistakably manifest itself until too late" and that "early warning signs" of mental illness may be ignored because they are culturally acceptable or "politically correct."

Acknowledging all the data in the shootings report and the truth of Ragan's statements in the letter, we still believe there is room to craft safer and constitutionally protected gun legislation. We shall see.