Red herrings in a school shooting case
Opening the Covenant School documents may be the right First Amendment move, but shouldn’t be strong-armed by lawmakers looking for an ‘out’ on gun-reform
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Talk of the so-called Covenant School “manifesto” is a red herring: a distraction floated by the Tennessee conservative lawmakers as an excuse for their failure to take any meaningful action on gun reform.
A red herring is either a “dried, smoked fish,” per the Oxford dictionary or “an unimportant fact, idea, event, etc. that takes people’s attention away from the important ones,” as this case is.
On May, 64 members of the House Republican Caucus sent a letter to Metro Nashville Police Chief John Drake: “As you know, Goveror Bill Lee has called upon the General Assembly to consider public safety legislation in response to these events in an extraordinary special session scheduled for Aug. 21,” said the letter. “In order for this special session to be successful, it is paramount we understand the behavior and motives of the Covenant School perpetrator.”
There’s an excellent argument to be made that documents obtained from shooter Audrey Hale should be open to the public. The Tennessee Public Records Act grants residents of Tennessee the right to inspect public records, but Metro Police is asserting its law enforcment privilege to keep the collected documents sealed.
Law enforcement privilege is typically used in cases in which investigation is ongoing. But police killed Hale, who appeared to be acting alone, at the site of the March 27 shooting.
Now, The Tennessean, Nashville’s Gannett-owned daily paper of record has filed suit against Metro Nashville and the police department for the right of viewing the Hale documents. Among other points, the suit takes aim at the parents of Covenant students who are attempting to intervene and keep the documents sealed.
It can be correct that the public, including the legislature, has the legal right to view the Covenant papers — though the ethics of publicizing them is arguable. But timing of the release should be no factor in when lawmakers can discuss gun safety.
Hale was allegedly transgender, sometimes using the name “Audrey Hale” on social media and at others, “Aidan Hale.”
Could it be the question of Hale’s gender that has conservatives so interested in seeing the so-called “manifesto”? Law enforcement sources have described Hale’s diary as having detailed diagrams of Covenant and comments about methods of other mass shooters, but nothing indicates gender was a factor in the shooting.
But Tennessee’s GOP lawmakers have doubtless convinced themselves that gender is why Hale shot and killed six people. Would it not be easier if pro-gun conservatives could prove to themselves that guns are no problem in society, but that the threat instead lies with transgender people?
After all, the state legislature has had “hold my beer” moments over LGBTQ rights for seven or eight years now. Each year, Tennessee leads the nation in the number of laws unfriendly to LGBTQ people that are passed while continuing to loosen up gun laws.
Special animus of late has been directed towards trans people, with a disgraceful array of leading Tennessee Republicans — U.S. Sen. Marsha Blackburn, state Senate Majority Leader Jack Johnson, and Sens. Ed Jackson, Dawn White and Janice Bowling — headlining an October anti-trans rally attended by white nationalist members of the Proud Boys.
It’s undeniable that America has a gun sickness. Seldom does a week pass — a week! — that a mass killing doesn’t disrupt life. And Tennessee has had its fair share. The Covenant shooting was the third shooting with mass casualties in five years.
Even as lawmakers claim they can take no action until parsing Hale’s suicide note and diary, the pitch of public concern has been turned up, and Tennesseeans are clamoring for serious gun policy reform. Stalling techniques may not work any longer, as the spring protests showed. Rep. Justin J. Pearson, D-Memphis, has already said he expects school walkouts and “civil disobedience” during the special session.
The thousands of mothers who held hands to form a human chain, starting at Vanderbilt University Medical Center — where Covenant shooting victims were taken — stretching to the Capitol? They seem serious. Voices for a Safer Tennessee, the group behind the event, has achieved nonprofit status and announced that members will be advocating in advance of the session for extreme orders of protection, safe gun storage laws and for closing loopholes in the background check process.
And to many parents, as well as schoolchildren, Hale’s motives aren’t important. Six people are dead and prioritizing that legislators read Hale’s materials before deliberating on gun laws won’t bring them back.
Even were the writings found to be full of vitriol towards Covenant School and Covenant Church about reaction to the shooter’s gender, as some have postulated, why should that slow the work of the General Assembly?
If Metro doesn’t release the documents before the Aug. 21 start of session, you will see Republican lawmakers flat refusing to do their job. And if I were betting woman, I’d bet they wouldn’t mind having this excuse.
What if the documents are opened and they don’t turn out to be very interesting? Supposed they are filled with trivia, an obsession with weapons, for example? Would that change how our lawmakers would do their jobs?
Call me cynical, but I’d wager good money that no matter how fast a court might rule that Metro must unseal the Hale documents and no matter what the writing within might contain, no meaningful gun policy reform will pass: lawmakers are too wed to the NRA’s party line and too afraid of primary challengers even farther out the right wing who could make incumbents look weak on guns.
Our lawmakers have proven unwilling to hear their constituents, despite ample proof Tennessans support new gun laws. No, they’d rather distract you by casting out possibly false information and speculation about how a deranged shooter could have been motivated by their gender — based on nothing.
That’s a red herring, folks — the second definition. And like the smoked fish of the first definition, it’s beginning to smell.
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