How the Nashville grade school shooter was able to get guns legally

The deadly shooting in a Nashville grade school has sparked calls for a so-called red-flag law in Tennessee. But a proposed law in 2020 never made it out of committee. It's another example how the state has scrapped tighter gun laws and passed legislation that makes it easier to acquire weapons.

Tenn. passed law allowing residents 21 and over to carry gun without a permit

A police officer walks past a sign for a school.
A police officer walks by an entrance to The Covenant School after a shooting in Nashville, Tenn. on Monday. (John Amis/The Associated Press)

The deadly shooting in a Nashville grade school that left three nine-year old students and three adult staff members dead has sparked calls in Tennessee for what's called a red-flag law, with advocates suggesting that may have prevented the attack.

One was proposed in the state in 2020. That red-flag law —  also known as an extreme risk protection order (ERPO) — would have, if passed, allowed for the temporary confiscation of guns from individuals who are considered to be of immediate risk to themselves or others. But that proposed law never made it out of committee.

It's another example how in recent years the state has scrapped tighter gun laws, and instead passed legislation that makes it easier to acquire weapons.

The shooter, identified as Audrey Elizabeth Hale, 28, had purchased seven weapons legally from five different stores, including two assault weapons and a handgun that were used in the assault, Nashville Police Chief John Drake told reporters on Tuesday.

Under current Tennessee gun laws, Hale had no criminal record that would have prevented Hale from purchasing guns.

Hale had reportedly been receiving care from a doctor for an "emotional disorder," according to Hale's parents.

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Drake, the police chief, told reporters that Hale's parents did not feel that Hale should possess guns. Hale sold one of the guns, and the parents were unaware that Hale had other weapons, Drake said.

But Drake said there were no existing laws that would have allowed  police to seize the guns from Hale for possessing weapons while under the care of a doctor.

However, had police known that the assailant was going to kill someone, they would have tried to seize those weapons, Drake added.

Red-flag laws allow for temporary restrictions

That seizure would have been made easier if the state had red-flag laws, advocates say.

"This horrific tragedy underscores why violence intervention and extreme risk protection order laws are so important," Peter Ambler, executive director and co-founder of the Giffords Law Center, said in a statement.

"The Nashville shooter bought multiple guns legally and their parents were concerned about their access to guns. In states with extreme risk protection orders, family members or law enforcement have a legal process they can use to ensure those who pose a danger to themselves or others don't have guns."

These orders, handed down by a judge or police, can temporarily restrict firearm access to individuals. A number of states have imposed such laws, including Connecticut and Florida. 

But whether such laws would have worked in this case is unclear, said Dr. Mark Rosenberg, founding director of the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control.

"This shooter had some mental health disturbances but we don't know how serious they were. We don't know if it was a major psychiatric illness," Rosenberg said.

"Red-flag laws are really focused on people who express homicidal or suicidal [thoughts]."

Tenn. to lower minimum age for gun carrying

Meanwhile, Tennessee continues to ease restrictions on owning firearms. Tennessee lawmakers have recently sponsored bills to allow teachers, principals and school staff to carry loaded guns on school property, FOX 13 Memphis reported.

And the state is currently in the process of dropping the minimum age for Tennesseans to carry handguns publicly without a permit to 18.

This move comes two years after Tennessee, in July 2021, passed a law that allowed most adults 21 and older to carry a handgun, openly or concealed, without a permit.

"I signed constitutional carry today because it shouldn't be hard for law-abiding Tennesseans to exercise their [Second Amendment] rights," Gov. Bill Lee said on social media at the time.

However that law was still too restrictive for some gun right activists. The Firearms Policy Coalition (FPC) sued the state for prohibiting 18 to 20 year olds from being allowed to carry a handgun without a permit, arguing it was unconstitutional.

By late last year, according to The Associated Press, Tennessee Attorney General Jonathan Skrmetti's office negotiated a settlement rather than defend the law, citing last year's U.S. Supreme Court ruling expanding gun rights.

There are some limits and restrictions to gun ownership. Felons, those convicted of domestic violence offences and stalking, and those committed by the court to a mental institution are not allowed such a permit.

As well, all prospective gun buyers who purchase a gun from pawn shop or from a licensed firearm dealer are required to undergo a background check via the Tennessee Instant Check System (TICS) which is administered by the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation (TBI), according to the Safe Tennessee Project.

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But there is no permit, background check or firearms registration required when buying a handgun from a private individual, the U.S. Concealed Carry Association says on its website.

As for other Tennessee gun laws, according to the U.S. Concealed Carry Association:

  • There is no state-mandated waiting period for handgun purchases in Tennessee.
  • Gun owners can carry a concealed firearm in bars and restaurants that serve alcohol, unless posted, provided no alcohol is consumed.
  • There are no restrictions on purchases of multiple firearms.


Mark Gollom

Senior Reporter

Mark Gollom is a Toronto-based reporter with CBC News. He covers Canadian and U.S. politics and current affairs.

With files from The Associated Press, Reuters