After School Shooting, Nashville Grieves and Ponders Its Divisions
Shortly after the shooting rampage that left six people dead this week at a Nashville elementary school, State Senator Charlane Oliver, a first-term Democrat who represents a large chunk of the city, stood before reporters and wiped away her tears. Then she laced into her Republican colleagues for systematically loosening the state’s gun laws when, she said, they should have been tightened.
“I believe in karma,” she said. “And it’s going to come a day that every person that did nothing, God help them.”
Nashville, Tennessee’s booming capital city, has typically brought a certain politesse to the management of its defining tensions — between “rural and urban, polished elites and gritty common folk, a backward-looking past and a forward-looking gaze,” as the historian Benjamin Houston put it.
In the mid-20th century, city leaders and civil rights activists negotiated a largely peaceful integration of the city’s public spaces. More recently, locals have taken pride in the concept of “Nashville nice.” And for decades, liberals and conservatives have mingled in a state of relative comity, making for a city that can feel “radically unsorted,” as the critic Stephen Metcalf once wrote in describing the politics of Johnny Cash, one of Nashville’s many musical heroes.
But even before the horror of this week’s shooting, that sense of respectful accommodation was becoming ever harder to maintain. And some in Nashville say it may become exponentially more difficult after the massacre on Monday, which has touched on two polarizing topics: Tennessee’s increasingly open gun policy, and the frictions over the rights of L.G.B.T.Q. people that have been exacerbated by new Republican-driven laws that target drag shows and ban puberty-delaying treatments for transgender children.
Hundreds of protesters, including teenagers, children in their plaid school uniforms and mothers with toddlers on their hips, flooded the State Capitol on Thursday, chanting “Vote them out” and “We don’t want your thoughts and prayers” outside. Inside, a tense standoff developed as a few Democratic lawmakers interrupted the usual proceedings to join protesters in calling for tighter gun laws.
The shooter, identified by the police as Audrey E. Hale, was a 28-year-old former student of the Covenant School, the Christian elementary school that was attacked on Monday. The assailant used three weapons that the police said had been legally purchased, including a military-style semiautomatic rifle. Officers shot and killed the assailant minutes after they arrived at the school.
There has been confusion about the shooter’s gender identity. Chief John Drake of the Metropolitan Nashville Police Department said the assailant identified as transgender, and officials used “she” and “her” to refer to the attacker. But in a social media post and a LinkedIn profile, the shooter appeared to identify as male in recent months.
In liberal circles, anger exploded into the open almost immediately. “Can I ask you, @GovBillLee why you passed permitless carry in 2021?” the Nashville-based country star Margo Price wrote on Twitter, referring to the law signed by Tennessee’s Republican governor, Bill Lee, that allows most adults to carry handguns without a permit. “Our children are dying and being shot in school but you’re more worried about drag queens than smart gun laws? You have blood on your hands.”
The anger was just as intense from some Nashville conservatives, who sought to connect the attack to the assailant’s gender identity. On Tuesday, Clay Travis, a Nashville-based radio host, wrote in a tweet: “This was a terror attack on religious people by a deranged lunatic trans person.”
The language was harsher from Matt Walsh, a controversy-courting rightwing podcaster with The Daily Wire, the conservative media company co-founded by the commentator Ben Shapiro. The outlet moved to Nashville from Los Angeles recently, with the goal of building a national multimedia empire in the spiritual home of country music.
Mr. Walsh, who hosted a rally against medical treatment for transgender youth in downtown Nashville last October, devoted a podcast this week to talking about the shooting.
“This is not about guns, and these damned frauds know damned well that it is not about guns,” Mr. Walsh said. He went on to describe “radical far-left trans activism” as a “hateful, violent movement.”
“Nashville nice” it was not.
Lew Conner, 85, a Nashville lawyer and longtime donor to Republican candidates, said he had begun to feel lost, politically, in a city he has called home for decades.
These days, he said, Nashville liberals seemed to have become more liberal. But Mr. Conner laid the blamed for much of the change in tone on his fellow Republicans, particularly those in the Statehouse, whom Mr. Conner accused of waging a spiteful war on a city that has long been run by moderate Democrats.
The state of the city is “very divisive,” he said. “And you have this tragedy on top of it. I mean, it doesn’t get any worse than that.”
For years, Nashville has been run by a succession of mayors who have set a moderate tone for a Southern city that was eager to outrun its past: In general, the mayors have been socially progressive, pro-growth and pro-business. In recent years, though, Nashville’s Metropolitan Council has become more progressive, reflecting a more liberal populace: From 2015 to 2022, the percentage of residents who considered themselves liberal increased to 30 percent from 24 percent, according to polling from Vanderbilt University.
John Geer, a political science professor at Vanderbilt, said the shift was probably related to the city’s rapid growth in population, at almost double the U.S. average, and to the “big sort” phenomenon, in which Americans increasingly seek to live among people of similar political persuasions to their own.
As the city has moved leftward, though, Tennessee Republicans, ascendant in state politics, have taken a hard right turn. The high-profile clashes between the city and the legislature are to some extent conflicts between urban and rural values writ large, since many Republican legislators represent the conservative Tennessee countryside. In the state capital, where lawmakers bump up against music-industry types and the many newcomers flocking to Nashville’s emerging tech industry, the tension can also feel intimate, and personal.
The partisan tension has spilled out beyond the Capitol building. In October, Vanderbilt University Medical Center announced that it was suspending what doctors call gender-affirming surgerical procedures for patients under 18, after the medical center came under pressure from conservatives inside and outside the legislature.
“I think it’s a struggle for the soul of Nashville,” said Lisa Quigley, a political strategist who formerly served as chief of staff to former U.S. Representative Jim Cooper, a Democrat.
Before the shooting, guns and social issues were not the only reasons Nashville Democrats and Republicans were furious with one another.
Last year, Republicans redrew Tennessee’s congressional map so that a Nashville district held by a Democrat for nearly 150 years was split up among three districts that extend far out into conservative suburbs and rural areas, and were drawn to heavily favor Republicans.
Later, the Metropolitan Council rejected an effort to host the 2024 Republican National Convention in Nashville, sparking a flurry of bills from the Republican legislature that were widely seen as retribution, including a new law that significantly shrinks the council.
There have also been smaller moments when connections across the political divide have frayed.
Anna Caudill, a Nashville special education advocate, worked from 2000 to 2008 at a school called Christ Presbyterian Academy, where she befriended one of the victims of Monday’s shooting, Katherine Koonce, who worked at that school at the time. She also got to know the families of Governor Lee and Senator Marsha Blackburn, the hard-right Tennessee Republican, both of whom sent their children to Christ Presbyterian.
Ms. Caudill said she was on friendly terms with both families, in the spirit of the Nashville she first encountered when she moved to the city in the late 1990s.
But she said she was shaken when she saw Senator Blackburn participate in Mr. Walsh’s rally in October against trans health care, particularly when a group of Proud Boys showed up as supporters. “I was so mad, I couldn’t see straight,” said Ms. Caudill, 50.
Some Nashville residents believe the old familiarity between left and right in the city will survive the tragedy.
“I think there are tensions that are greater than they have been,” said Byron Trauger, a Nashville lawyer and civic leader. “But yesterday morning I was in a meeting with some very conservative people, and they view me as moderate to liberal. And there was certainly no tension there. I think some of the folks who have come in would love to see us divided, but the strength of the city has always been that we focus on making things better, as opposed to some ideological framework.”
Of course, many people — perhaps most — are not processing this anguished moment through politics. They are doing it through their lived experiences and, particularly in the South, through faith.
Steven Curtis Chapman, a prominent Christian singer and songwriter who lives near Nashville, remembers Dr. Koonce, the head of Covenant, as a singular educator who was an invaluable healing presence for his family after his 5-year-old daughter, Maria, was killed in an accident.
For him, Monday’s tragedy has a spiritual meaning more than a political one, at least in the immediate wake of the shooting.
“I believe Katherine is with my Maria and with Jesus and with these students, and that God is going to wipe all these tears away and make all these broken things whole again,” he said.
Amid the flaring tensions in Nashville, there have also been myriad instances of people coming together to support the victims’ families, and one another.
David Thomas, 52, the director of family counseling at Daystar Counseling Ministries, which counsels children and families, said he was touched this week when a local print shop rushed to produce materials he needed as he prepared to meet with families affected by the shooting.
“There’s a kindness that emerges from this city,” he said. “Though we’ve experienced a lot of growth, there’s still some truth to this being a small town in a big city.”
Reporting was contributed by Emily Cochrane, Eliza Fawcett and Ruth Graham.
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