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After Shooting, Tennessee’s God and Guns Culture Under Fire As Protests Mount in Capitol

Por Bob Smietana
guns shooting
Lauren Giesler holds a sign with photos of her daughters as she joins other activist mothers at a rally at the state Capitol, March 28, 2023, in Nashville, Tennessee, the day after a shooting at a Christian elementary school in the city. (AP Photo/John Amis)

Monday’s shooting at The Covenant School, which left seven dead including the shooter, highlights a dual reality of life in Nashville, often known as the buckle of the Bible Belt. 

It’s a place where God is everywhere — and so are guns.

That tension is apparent in a drive along Interstate 65, headed south of Nashville. On the east side of the highway is a billboard that asks passersby to “Pray for Nashville,” with a heart in the middle of the message. A few doors down is a massive indoor shooting range.

Even as residents have prayed for the victims of the March 27 shooting — six students and staff — and reached out with love and kindness to grieving families, there’s historically been very little political support for restriction on the right to bear arms. 

But in the wake of the state’s deadliest school shooting, Tennessee’s God and guns culture is coming under fire by outsiders and Nashville residents alike. Hundreds of protesters rallied at the Tennessee Capitol on Thursday, calling for reforms like red flag laws.

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Some made their way into the visitors’ gallery of the Tennessee House of Representatives, where they shouted “No justice, no peace” at the behest of several Democratic lawmakers, according to social media video posted by The Tennessee Holler, a local progressive news site.

After the shooting, Tennessee lawmakers put on hold a proposal to expand concealed carry rights for adults to carry any firearm, including rifles such as the AR-15, out of respect for the victims and their families.

But gun reform activists argue this is merely a delay tactic until the spotlight has moved on, at which point the majority Republican state Legislature will go back to lifting gun restrictions. They note the decision earlier this year by Tennessee’s attorney general to settle a lawsuit that allows any adult to carry a concealed handgun without a permit, background check or safety training, and another proposed bill that would allow 18- and 19-year-old Tennesseans to carry handguns without a permit.

tatianna guns
Tatianna Irizarry-Meléndez. (Courtesy photo)

Tatianna Irizarry-Meléndez, who described herself as a Christian mom of three, said she was surprised by how ubiquitous guns were in Nashville when she moved here nearly a decade ago. Her employer at the time, a company known for its Christian culture, sponsored gun classes and people would often post about guns they wanted to sell or trade on a company message board.

When she heard about the shooting, Irizarry-Meléndez said, she prayed for the victims and their families — but also worried about her own kids. If a shooting could happen at Covenant —located in Green Hills, a wealthy community — it could happen anywhere.

No one is safe, she thought.

Monday’s tragedy has made her want to become more involved in efforts to prevent mass shootings by passing legislation limiting the kinds of guns used in the shooting. She also worries about teachers in schools, who are being put at risk when they show up in the classroom.

Three staff members at Covenant — the head of school, Katherine Koonce; custodian Mike Hill; and substitute teacher Cynthia Peak — were killed during the shooting while protecting children. Irizarry-Meléndez said she honored their actions and those of the police officers who confronted the shooter. But she also felt a sense of guilt that our culture is asking the impossible of school leaders.

“Teachers and adults that work in schools are not there to be bulletproof vests,” she said. “It feels wrong to me that if my child was to survive a horrific event like this, it will be because a teacher took a bullet.”

She said her faith requires her to do more to prevent that from happening.

Lawyer and author David French, who lives in Franklin, a suburb of Nashville, attended a servicio de oración for victims of the shooting at Christ Presbyterian church, which belongs to the Presbyterian Church in America, the same denomination as Covenant.

French, who spent nearly two decades in the PCA, said he had been to Covenant before and knew people at the church.

nashville prayer guns
Fitzgerald Moore leads a group in prayer at a memorial at the entrance to The Covenant School on March 29, 2023, in Nashville, Tennessee. (AP Photo/Wade Payne)

Writing about the servicio for The New York Times, French said he prayed for the families of those who had been killed in the shooting and that lawmakers would find wisdom and “moral courage to enact policies that can make a difference.”

French, a native Southerner, said he is a gun owner mostly because he and his family have been threatened in the past. He is skeptical that broad gun control measures will work — but does support so-called red flag laws, which would bar people who are in crisis or deemed a danger from buying or having guns. French pointed to a Florida red flag law, passed in the wake of a mass shooting, that has been highly effective.

But he fears that even passing that kind of law will be difficult in Tennessee — where the GOP has a supermajority and any Republican lawmaker who supports gun regulation would likely lose their seat in a primary.

French told media he is concerned guns have become a fetish in the South, especially among his fellow Christians and among the state’s politicians. He pointed to the case of U.S. Rep. Andy Ogles from Tennessee, who sent out Christmas cards with family standing in front of a decorated tree, holding rifles.

“It’s almost mandatory for a Republican candidate to pose with an AR-15,” French said.

French also worries about the state of America’s soul — and the incongruity in how Americans seem to love both God and violence. Both set the country apart from other industrialized nations.

“There’s a real sickness in our society,” he said.

Lee Camp, professor of religion at Lipscomb University in Nashville and host of the “No Small Endeavor” podcast, agrees guns have become something of an idol for conservative Christians. He sees it as part of a larger idea in American history that justifies violence in God’s name.

“This presumption of righteous violence in service to the kingdom of God is a very old conceit,” he said. “And it has done immense damage.” 

The Rev. Mike Glenn. Photo courtesy of Brentwood Baptist Church

The Rev. Mike Glenn, pastor of Brentwood Baptist Church, one of the largest congregations in the area, said that in Nashville, there’s often a veneer of Jesus painted over everything.

But that veneer of Jesus doesn’t change people on the inside or give them the moral and spiritual foundation to deal with crises or tragedies or hard situations.

“When things get hard, you flip back not to your training in Christ but to the world,” he said. “You handle things the way John Wick would. Or you handle it the way Clint Eastwood would.”

Glenn said the gospel message contradicts the way the world around us operates. But he fears that his fellow evangelical Christians have lost faith in that gospel. Which will make it hard for folks in Nashville and the South to work together to respond to gun violence.

“The gospel message is that you never respond to evil with more evil,” he said. “You know, you don’t overcome hate with more hate. You bless those who curse you. The first response of a Christian to anybody is love. And love is not this warm feeling toward you. It’s that I’m actively going to seek your best and want to take action so that your life is the best.”

Pastor Kelli X. Photo courtesy of The Village Church

The Rev. Kelli X, pastor of The Village Church in Madison, Tennessee, said prayer and action have to be linked. Otherwise, she said, quoting the New Testament Book of James, faith without works is dead.

“I believe in praying with my feet,” she said. “I believe in praying with my vote.”

A mother of two, the pastor said she believes no school is immune from the kind of shooting that happened at Covenant. She worries nothing will change.

“I’m heartbroken and working very hard not to be numb to another mass shooting, another mass murder,” she said.

For the Rev. Aaron Marble, pastor of historic Jefferson Street Missionary Baptist Church, the news that the daughter of Covenant pastor Chad Scruggs was killed hit like a “gut punch.” Mable, who has young children, said he can’t imagine what Scruggs is going through.

He said pastors often deal with a range of emotions in their work — going from visiting church members on their deathbeds to welcoming new children into the community.

Marble said he worries Americans have begun to accept these kinds of shootings as a normal part of life. That’s just not right, he said.

“When children are murdered at school, it should be really difficult to go about our next day as usual,” he said. “I think our country has become desensitized to this type of violence. Even when it happens in your own city, in your own backyard, there is a dull nulling of what should be excruciating pain.”

Bob SmietanaBob Smietana es reportero nacional de Religion News Service.



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13 Respuestas

  1. https://audienceaccess.co/bio/SHENCO-44933

    I include link above BECAUSE before gun presence is debated/decided, citizenship of the USA HAS to mourn loss and our inability to meet on this topic in the space that mourning may permit. I am very proud of my daughter’s lyrics for THE GUN MASS and hope it will provide a musical lament which becomes a “pause” for reflection and grief

  2. It’s not easy to hold to mourning for those lost to violence. We do have to think about and speak to what (we think and feel) leads to such violence; but we do then risk being drawn into a controversy vortex, where we loose our grip and grasp on those lost. It’s unimaginable that the lives of three innocent nine year olds have been ended.

  3. I have lost a cousin to gun violence. Profoundly painful. Going to the funeral and the amount of makeup to display his remains was difficult to see. I will never remove that image from my head. Murder is a pandemic since Cain and Abel. Not far from, “In the Beginning.” To remove guns is a misnomer that mass murder will decrease. Fentanyl is illegal unless prescribed by a doctor. Usually for end of life care. But in the last 20 years death by fentanyl and other opioids have in creased more than 5 times. And prescription pain meds are much less prescribed in 2021 than 1999. I agree with the pastor about violence. Never retaliate. But the church case in Texas where a man protected the congregation when a shooter came in has merit. Remove guns from society. The pandemic will get worse. The issue isn’t guns. It’s the heart. The church is weaker today than ever. And persecution is coming. The Bible teaches a remnant. Or a few. USA churches are full of tares, period. We have left our first love. We have lost the Gospel… The best news ever. Look at the articles in the Roy’s’ Report.

    1. A main difference being that when we see that any other thing is killing people (opioids, Fentanyl) we work to eliminate the harm (regulations, border seizures), but with gun violence the response is, weirdly, “it’s a heart issue, can’t do anything about it”.

      I don’t believe the way of Christ ever allows for his followers to take the life of another, so no, I don’t think that church incident is a positive story- Christ followers are called to lay down their lives, not take the lives of others- even others who are trying to kill them. We have the prime example of how to respond in Jesus and the early church history of martyrs.

      1. “A main difference being that when we see that any other thing is killing people (opioids, Fentanyl) we work to eliminate the harm (regulations, border seizures)”

        There are plenty of gun regulations and border seizures. The ironic part of your post, is that even with these regulations and seizures of drugs, it does not make a difference in the availability of these types of drugs or the harm they can cause.

        “, but with gun violence the response is, weirdly, “it’s a heart issue, can’t do anything about it”.”

        Until we start looking at all the facts that are the causes for these people that choose to commit shootings, and are willing to have a truthful discussion about who/what/when/where/why, then explore a fact based response that takes all factors into account (regardless or who it might offend), we will then begin to understand how to address this issue in an effective manner. Right now most blame the gun, not the person. It is the same as blaming the car, not the drunk driver, for killing/injuring someone.

  4. This article was biased, in ways I’ve come to expect from secular media.

    The prejudicial language is meant to persuade: “Some made their way into the visitors’ gallery of the Tennessee House of Representatives.” Made their way?? How about “stormed into,” such that security needed to sequester some of the Representatives in bathrooms? No Jan 6 comparison, of course, because the “some” are on the right side, yes?

    Plenty of tendentious quotes from those trying to politicize a tool that keeps the USA from autocracy, but nothing from those saying arm the schools, whether with satellite cop stations or trained civilians. That the author is unaware or unwilling to share the history of 2A is telling. Pssst. It ain’t AR-15s that are the goal. First, sure. Then semi-automatic pistols and shotguns. And finally, the confiscation Obama let slip in a moment of candor: the Australian model of confiscating guns.

    Worse, it avoids – again seemingly purposely – how Man’s inherent sinfulness is central to the human experience, since Cain murdered Abel, with an AR… an Assault Rock.

    1. Well Clint, someday God’s going to take your guns away…. what are you going to do then? He doesn’t believe in the 2nd Amendment like you and other gun trusting Americans do… He doesn’t even care as much about avoiding “autocracy”… What will you say when you find out His priorities were so much.different? None of those priorities you mention are in Scripture… They’re all from American Holy Writ, Book of John Wayne Ch1:10… What will you do when He asks you where you got these ideas, these strange doctrines?

      1. Beware the unacceptable face of Luke 11:21. When God takes the guns away, it will be because there is no use for them in the afterlife. In the meantime, it’s not up to you to accelerate the process.

      2. Let me translate your surfacy, risible “analysis.” God doesn’t think you should be able to defend yourself. God doesn’t care about totalitarianism, say like in the USSR or China. You know God’s priorities because you have ‘more than’ knowledge. About right?

        Considering Christ renewed us for liberty, told His own disciples to buy swords for defense and warned us (gravely) to not put words into His mouth, you may wanna reconsider. That you don’t realize these ideas are overtly presented in scripture shows the kind of pabulum now being pushed in too many churches. But the facile reference to Jesus and John Wayne (and likely its author (Kristin Kobes Du Mez) who strawmanned her way into a poorly-researched and -analyzed screed of the same name), best evidences you have not done the spadework. Poor theology, and at best you offer unsupported claims without evidence. That’s it. Not even rising to the level of ‘strange doctrines’. More like Sophistic snacks-for-thought cloaked in the requisite, liberal guns-are-bad theology, without attempting to support them with the standard two premise, one conclusion structure.

        You might take some formal logic (or at least become conversant in informal fallacies), and then read the histories of Europe, particularly England, where gun proscription was used for centuries to subdue those who might put up opposition to the king. Or, read up on what the founders stated in their BoR debates on whether right to self defense (2A) should supplant freedom of conscience (1A) as #1. Then again, progressives hate 1A too, starting when Woodrow Wilson shut down opposition periodicals in 1917-18, so perhaps we should not be surprised as it is *always* intertwined in modern liberal thought. May your chains rest lightly upon you.

        1. Clint –

          You left out another aspect of our nation’s history with the second amendment: RACE.
          Did you know there were initial prohibitions against Black people being allowed to possess or carry guns – free or enslaved? There were even laws in southern states like FL that authorized whites to go in and seize “any and all arms weapons and ammunitions from Negroes”? The concern: keeping the Black people (who were outnumbering whites in many areas) “under control”.
          How does this impact us today? Go look at the reaction to a Black militia marching with guns on the state Capitol (see California in 1967) vs white militia marching with guns on the state Capitol (see Michigan in 2020). The difference? When it was Black people, the GOP
          – and even the NRA – sprung into action to get some gun control. When it was white people, it was all about “their rights.” Look at reactions of cops and politicians to hearing a Black person “was legally and lawfully carrying a gun” (see Philando Castile shooting in 2016).
          You talk about heart – you want to see the “heart of the matter” about guns? Have more of the “people who don’t fit the right profile” legally get them.

  5. Some of these comments remind me of an aphorism NT scholar Ben Worthington likes to use. “A text without a context is just a pretext for whatever you want to believe.”

  6. Here’s a novel idea: Believers start denouncing guns. They record youtube clips of them destroying/handing in their weapons and inviting others to do the same. Do this for your children. Do that for your country. Do that for Jesus.
    Well, that’s a witness that will reach the lost.

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