Nashville school shooter legally stockpiled weapons before attack

<span>Photograph: Mark Zaleski/AP</span>
Photograph: Mark Zaleski/AP

The killer of three children and three adults at a Christian elementary school in Tennessee bought numerous firearms in the weeks leading up to the mass shooting, police have revealed.

Audrey Hale, 28, was under a doctor’s care for an unspecified emotional disorder at the time of the rampage, the Nashville police chief, John Drake, said at a Tuesday afternoon media briefing.

Drake said he believed those killed at the Covenant school, including three nine-year-olds, were not specifically targeted.

“We’ve determined that [the killer] bought seven firearms from five different gun stores here legally,” Drake said. “Three of those weapons were used yesterday during the horrific tragedy.

“Law enforcement knew nothing about the treatment she was receiving but her parents felt she should not own weapons. They were under the impression that she sold one weapon and did not own any more. As it turned out, she had been hiding several weapons within the house.”

Police released highly dramatic body-camera video of officers moving though the school and confronting and killing the attacker. The officers, Drake said, “heard gunfire, immediately ran to that, and took care of this horrible situation”.

The video prompted many to draw a contrast between the handling of the Nashville shooting and the one last year at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, where officers waited more than an hour to confront and kill an intruder who killed 19 children and two teachers.

However, Nashville law enforcement has been accused of failing to respond properly to a report that Hale sent social media messages to a friend before the attack, warning: “Something bad is about to happen.”

Drake did not address the matter at the Tuesday briefing.

The messages to a former middle school basketball teammate, sent less than an hour before the killings, were “basically a suicide note”, the attacker wrote, and “you’ll probably hear about me on the news after I die”.

Related: Nashville victims: three nine-year-olds and school head among six shot dead

The friend, Averianna Patton, shared the Instagram exchange with News Channel 5, suggesting police showed a lack of urgency after she alerted them.

Patton said she called 911, was told to call another police department’s non-emergency number, was placed on hold for almost seven minutes, then was promised a visit from an officer that came only five hours after the shooting.

“I learned Audrey was the shooter and that she had reached out to me prior to the shooting,” Patton said, referring to Hale, who identified as transgender. “My heart is with all of the families affected and I’m devastated by what has happened.”

Also on Tuesday, Joe Biden repeated his call for an assault weapons ban. Speaking at a financial conference in Durham, North Carolina, the president said the second amendment, which protects gun ownership rights, was “not absolute”.

“You’re not allowed to own an automatic weapon. You’re not allowed to own a machine gun. You’re not allowed to have a flamethrower. You’re not allowed so many other things. Why in God’s name do we allow these weapons of war in our streets and in our schools?

“Overwhelmingly, a majority of gun owners agree we have to do something. Last year we came together to pass the most significant gun safety legislation in 30 years. It was bipartisan. We got it done. Don’t tell me we can’t do more together.”

The legislation last year only expanded background checks for the youngest gun buyers and funded mental health and violence intervention programs.

In Nashville, detectives continued to piece together a motive for the murders by a former student at the school, as a heartbroken community began to grieve with prayer vigils and a growing memorial of flowers and soft toys.

The victims were Evelyn Dieckhaus, Hallie Scruggs and William Kinney, all aged nine; substitute teacher Cynthia Peak, 61; head of school Katherine Koonce, 60; and Mike Hill, 61, a custodian.

Their murders were, according to the Gun Violence Archive, the 129th mass shooting in the US this year. The archive defines a mass shooting as one in which four or more people are shot or wounded, not counting any attackers.

In an earlier TV interview on Tuesday, Drake said Hale left a “manifesto” before shooting her way into the school armed with two “assault-style” weapons.

“There was possibly some resentment for having to go to that school,” he told CBS News. “We have a booklet that shows exactly what she had planned to do. We have maps that showed the entry point into the school, the weapons that was going to be used, the clothing that she was going to wear, and she had drawn it up almost like a cartoon character.

“It was exactly what she had on during this incident.”

The mayor of Nashville, John Cooper, praised the speed of the police response, which he said meant the shooting “was dealt with in only 14 minutes”. The officers who killed Hale on the second floor were named as Rex Engelbert and Michael Collazo.

The officers, Cooper told CNN, “were running into gunfire and under a lot of gunfire”.

“This is our worst day,” the mayor said. “But it could have been worse without this great response.”

Separate surveillance footage published on Monday showed Hale arriving in a vehicle, shooting through glass entry doors, then wandering hallways with rifle raised.

A Democratic state legislator, John Ray Clemmons, condemned a loosening of gun laws in 2021, including allowing anyone over 18 to possess and carry weapons without training or a permit.

“We’ve been banning books up here, not guns,” he told CNN. “We make it harder to vote than to buy an AK. We allow permit-less carry in Tennessee and our governor had the gall to sign that bill at a Beretta manufacturing plant. That’s the climate, that’s the uphill battle I’m fighting.”

Flags were ordered to half-staff throughout the state. School leaders asked for privacy.

“Our community is heartbroken,” they said. “We are grieving tremendous loss and are in shock coming out of the terror that shattered our school and church. We are focused on loving our students, our families, our faculty and staff, and beginning the process of healing.”

Koonce had worked at the school for seven years after moving from Baton Rouge, Louisiana. The other two adult victims were both employed there.

Scruggs was a third-grade student and the daughter of the Covenant Presbyterian church lead pastor, Chad Scruggs.

Dieckhaus was also a third grader, the Tennessean reported. Her family attended a memorial for the victims on Monday night at Woodmont Christian church. Her older sister, a fifth grader, broke down in tears.

“I don’t want to be an only child,” she said.