The Republican governor of Tennessee called for compassion and an end to mass violence but pointedly declined to mention guns or gun control in a message to his state after three nine-year-old children and three adults were shot dead at a Christian school in Nashville.
“I understand there is pain,” Bill Lee said in a short, pre-recorded video. “I understand the desperation to have answers, to place blame, to argue about a solution that could prevent this horrible tragedy.”
There will “come a time to ask how a person could do this”, Lee said. “There will come a time to discuss and debate policy. But this is not a time for hate or rage. That will not resolve or heal.”
The Nashville shooting on Monday was the 129th mass shooting in the US this year, according to the Gun Violence Archive, and the 13th school shooting this year to cause injuries or death, according to Education Week.
The alleged killer, 28-year-old Audrey Hale, legally purchased seven firearms at five stores, according to police, who also said the suspect was treated for an “emotional disorder”.
The shooter carried three guns in the attack at the Covenant school, a private Christian academy, before being shot dead by police.
In 2019 and 2021, Lee signed legislation loosening Tennessee gun laws. The 2021 bill, which was opposed by many police and prosecutor associations, allows most adults to carry handguns in public without a permit, background check or training.
Tennessee does not have “red flag” laws, designed to stop gun purchases by people with criminal records or mental health problems.
Since the shooting, Joe Biden has lamented lax gun control laws and warned against accepting another tragedy without policy changes.
“As a nation, we owe these families more than our prayers,” the president said at an event in North Carolina. “We owe them action. We have to do more to stop this gun violence that [is] ripping communities apart and ripping apart the soul of this nation; to protect our children so they learn how to read and write instead of duck and cover in the classroom.”
Noting that he owned two shotguns and generally supported the right to own firearms, Biden drew a contrast with the military-grade guns carried into the Covenant school by the Nashville shooter.
“These are weapons of war,” he said. “Don’t tell me we can’t do more together. I again call on Congress to pass the assault weapons ban … That should not be a partisan issue.”
Americans need to “put pressure on them”, he added, in reference to the Republican party.
On Tuesday, Steve Scalise, the Republican House majority leader who survived a shooting at congressional baseball practice in 2017, appeared to accuse Democrats of exploiting the tragedy.
“The first thing in any kind of tragedy I do is I pray,” Scalise said. “I pray for the victims, pray for their families. I really get angry when I see people trying to politicize [the situation] for their own personal agenda.”
In his address on Tuesday evening, Lee, the governor of Tennessee, also noted that his wife was friends with victims in the Nashville shooting.
“Maria woke up this morning without one of her best friends,” he said.
Cynthia Peak, known as Cindy, “was supposed to come over to have dinner with Maria last night after she filled in as a substitute teacher yesterday at Covenant”, Lee said.
“Cindy and Maria and Katherine Koonce” – the head teacher at the Covenant school who was also killed – “were all teachers at the same school and have been family friends for decades.”
Koonce was on a video conference call when the gunshots started but immediately ran toward the shooting, a member of the Nashville city council told Fox News.
The head teacher, who had held her position since 2016, had “prepared the school by seeking advanced-level active-shooter training”, the city councilor, Russ Pulley said, adding that “from witnesses at the scene, this protocol – details of which I cannot provide – saved countless lives”.
“Prayer is the first thing we should do, but it’s not the only thing,” Lee said. “Law enforcement officials and educators across our state have been working for years, especially in the last year, to strengthen the safety of schools. That work was not in vain – the courage and swift response by the teachers, officers, and this community without a doubt prevented further tragedy.”
In 2019, Lee signed a school-safety bill encouraging school districts to develop threat-assessment teams. Scalise also called for stronger school safety measures in his press conference on Tuesday.
But in his video message, Lee mostly avoided matters of public policy.
“There will be a time to talk about the legislation and budget proposals we’ve brought forward this year,” he said. “And clearly there’s more work to do. But on this day after the tragedy, I want to speak to that which rises above all else. The battle is not against flesh and blood, it’s not against people. The struggle is against evil itself.”
A staunch conservative, Lee is also an evangelical Christian in the charismatic tradition. He has taken rightwing lines on most issues, including in supporting a near-total ban on abortion.
On Wednesday night, the first lady, Jill Biden, was scheduled to attend a candlelight vigil in Nashville.