Could the Nashville killer's gun purchases have been blocked?

AP Photo/John Amis

As we predicted when the news of the horrific murders at Covenant School in Nashville first broke on Monday morning, we’re starting to learn about some of red flags that the killer exhibited beforehand. The question is whether or not they were enough to block her from legally obtaining a firearm, or should have been anyway.

According to Nashville police, the suspect was receiving care from a doctor for an “emotional order”, and her parents have told officers that they didn’t believe she should have access to a firearm. Despite that, the suspect was apparently able to lawfully purchase multiple firearms, and was not prohibited by law from doing so. Over at National Review, my friend Jim Geraghty makes the case that the suspect could have been stopped from buying a firearm at retail… at least if her doctor or family had taken the right steps.

Here’s the gist of Geraghty’s argument:

Both federal and Tennessee state law ban the sale of firearms to anyone who has been adjudicated to be a threat to themselves or others. Had the parents, or the shooter’s doctor, or anyone else taken legal action to have the shooter deemed “mentally defective” under the law, she would not have been able to purchase the firearms used in the massacre.

The police chief did not elaborate on the emotional disorder, which doctor was providing the shooter care, or whether the shooter was on any medication. It is chillingly clear in retrospect that the shooter should have been institutionalized, or at minimum, legally ruled a potential threat to herself or others.

As Geraghty says, it’s clear in retrospect that the killer was suffering from some severe mental issues, but we don’t yet know what led her parents to believe she shouldn’t have access to a firearm. It’s also unknown at this point if the doctor who was treating her emotional disorder believed she posed a threat to herself or others, or if they ever attempted to commit her involuntarily. And under both Tennessee and federal law, an actual adjudication as being “mentally defective” would have been required in order to prohibit her from legally purchasing a firearm at retail.

Under Tennessee law, only an applicant who has not been “judicially committed to or hospitalized in a mental institution . . . has not had a court appoint a conservator for the applicant by reason of a mental defect, has not been judicially determined to be disabled by reason of mental illness, developmental disability or other mental incapacity, and has not, within seven years from the date of application, been found by a court to pose an immediate substantial likelihood of serious harm” may be granted a handgun-carry permit. Tennessee law also requires all relevant information in the adjudication of a mental defective to be turned over to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System.

If the killer had been adjudicated as a mental defective then it would have been reported to NICS and she would have been denied when she attempted to purchase a firearm at a local gun shop. But based on the reporting by Nashville authorities, it doesn’t look like either the doctor nor the suspect’s family ever tried to take that step. Geraghty notes that Tennessee doesn’t have a “red flag” law in place, but says those laws only work “if a concerned person goes to law enforcement and says, “I am afraid this person is a threat to themselves or others, and you must act to remove their firearms.” If no one tried to involuntarily commit the killer because they were concerned she was a threat to herself or others, why would we assume that her family or doctor would have applied for an Extreme Risk Protection Order either?

Geraghty also points out the contradiction between the anti-gun rhetoric of many Democrats versus the reality of enforcing the laws already in place.

As with every other mass shooting, many on the left side of the aisle will insist that horrors such as the one in Nashville could be avoided by passing by more gun-control laws. But a law is only as effective as its enforcement.

This morning, the Washington Post investigates why federal prosecutors in the District’s U.S. attorney’s office “chose not to prosecute 67 percent of those arrested by police officers in cases that would have been tried in D.C. Superior Court.” That is up from 35 percent in 2017, and much, much higher than other large cities in the United States.

Matthew M. Graves, the Biden-appointed U.S. attorney for D.C., told the Post that his office is prioritizing violent crimes, and “declinations are mostly coming after arrests in cases such as gun possession, drug possession and burglaries.”

We can point to Denver as well, where court authorities placed a 15-year-old on probation for illegal gun possession and allowed him to re-enroll at another high school on the condition that he receive daily pat downs to check him for weapons. Two staffers were shot when the student, now 17-years-old, brought a gun with him to East High School and opened fire before fleeing the campus and ultimately taking his own life.

Even if authorities in Nashville had taken steps to adjudicate the suspect as mentally defective, if she were as committed to carrying out her plans as police say she was then she could have obtained a gun illegally, as the teenager in Denver did on multiple occasions. But based on what we’ve learned so far, it’s right to question why those steps weren’t taken given the concerns of her family.

I’d say those concerns are far more important than the simple fact that she was under a doctor’s care for an “emotional disorder.” The vast majority of individuals in therapy don’t turn out to be mass murderers, just like the vast majority of those who aren’t receiving mental health treatment, and seeking help for mental health issues should not by itself be a disqualifying factor for exercising your Second Amendment rights. But if there were concerns about her posing a threat to herself and/or others before Monday, which appears to be the case, then it’s perfectly reasonable to question why neither her family or the medical professionals treating her mental illness took the steps available to them to not just prohibit her from owning firearms, but to involuntarily commit her so she could receive round-the-clock supervision and care.