Tennessee Comptroller report identifies 49 school shootings in past 25 years

Oak Ridge Rep. John Ragan contrasted school shooting data with homicides and drug overdose deaths

By: - August 8, 2023 6:01 am
Rep. John Ragan, R-Oak Ridge, center, with Sen. Kerry Roberts, R-Springfield, at right. Ragan sponsored a bill this legislative session to ban "divisive concepts" like the teaching of meritocracy.(Photo: John Partipilo)

Rep. John Ragan, R-Oak Ridge, center, with Sen. Kerry Roberts, R-Springfield, at right. (Photo: John Partipilo)

Just ahead of a promised special session on public safety called for by Gov. Bill Lee, a Tennessee Comptroller analysis has identified 49 Tennessee school shootings over the past 25 years resulting in 12 fatalities — half of them victims of the mass shooting at The Covenant School in Nashville earlier this year.

The analysis was prepared at the request of Rep. John Ragan, R-Oak Ridge, who — like fellow Republicans — has made clear his fierce opposition to proposed red-flag laws that would provide a pathway for removing firearms from individuals deemed to pose a risk for harm. The governor has proposed his version of a red-flag “protective” law to be heard during the Aug. 21 specially called legislative session.

A memo summarizing the Comptroller’s findings, addressed to Ragan, relies primarily on commonly cited data from the national K-12 School Shooting Database, but notes the Comptroller took a different approach to the data “based on Chairman Ragan’s concerns about what is defined as a ‘school shooting.'”

Interestingly, no one seems to be crying out to ban hypodermic needles because of overdose deaths. Likewise, nobody is demanding a ban on Corvettes and Mustangs because of drunk-driver-caused fatalities.

– Rep. John Ragan, R-Oak Ridge, in an email to legislative colleagues about school shootings

The national K-12 database found Tennessee had 63 school shooting incidents in the past 25 years. The Comptroller’s analysis excluded 14 school related shootings, such as school shootings that took place when no children were in school or when school buses got hit by bullets intended for another target, the memo said.

In an emailed message to members of the General Assembly, sharing the memo, Ragan contrasted school shooting data with the more than 10,000 homicides and 100,000 drug overdose deaths in the U.S. each year.

“Interestingly, no one seems to be crying out to ban hypodermic needles because of overdose deaths. Likewise, nobody is demanding a ban on Corvettes and Mustangs because of drunk-driver-caused fatalities,” Ragan wrote.

“Guns, like hypodermic needles and automobiles, have legitimate uses other than causing a criminally-inflicted death. Consequently, logic seems to require a focus on something other than the inanimate object involved in a criminally-inflicted death.”

In response to the memo, Rep. John Ray Clemmons, a Nashville Democrat, said Monday that “it’s disturbing to think that even one innocent child being murdered in a school is not enough for my extremist colleagues to agree that immediate action and substantive policy are necessary.”

3 kids, 3 adults killed in shooting at Nashville private elementary school

“Two things are clear from my colleague’s email,” he said. “First, we have too many gun deaths in Tennessee, many of which are in rural communities. Second, too many of these gun deaths are taking place in our schools.”

“How many deaths of innocent children is too many for them?” Clemmons said.  “How many will it take before my colleagues will agree to look at this issue objectively and have an adult conversation about the root cause of gun violence?  The people of Tennessee want us to improve public safety, and they deserve better than extremist legislators who are too afraid of their own shadows to do any thing to prevent innocent children from being murdered.”

The memo details the dominant trends of Tennessee school shootings over the past 25 years. Among them: 76% of shootings occurred in high schools, echoing national statistics. About two-thirds of all school shootings nationwide in the same time period took place in high schools.

The majority of school shootings reviewed by the Comptroller fell into two categories: “escalation of dispute” or “accidental.” Escalation events occurred after an argument or altercation; accidental events lacked intent to fire a weapon, such as a student sneaking a gun into school to show off, when it accidentally discharges.

There were 21 escalation school shootings and 11 accidental schools shootings in Tennessee since 1998, the report found.

It's disturbing to think that even one innocent child being murdered in a school is not enough for my extremist colleagues to agree that immediate action and substantive policy are necessary.

– Rep. John Ray Clemmons, D-Nashville

Of the 49 Tennessee school shootings since 1998, three met the Comptroller’s definition of “active shooter,” defined as a shooting during “illegal activity, hostage/standoff, and indiscriminate shooting.”

More than hall of all school shootings took place in urban areas and the largest share of school shootings —49% — took place inside a school building.

The majority — 57% — of shooters have been current or former students of the school where the shooting occurred, the memo said.

That was the case at The Covenant School, where a 28-year-old ex-student entered the building during a school day in March and killed three nine-year-old children — Evelyn Dieckhaus, Hallie Scruggs and William Kinney — and three staff members, Cynthia Peak, Katherine Koonce and Mike Hill.

A group of Covenant School parents have since launched two organizations to protect children from gun violence: Covenant Families for Brighter Tomorrows, which provides education around school safety and advocates for mental health support. The second, the Covenant Families Action Fund, has lobbied for stronger gun laws, including expanded background checks, secure storage and order of protection laws.

Ragan Memo 7.27

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Anita Wadhwani
Anita Wadhwani

Anita Wadhwani is a senior reporter for the Tennessee Lookout. The Tennessee AP Broadcasters and Media (TAPME) named her Journalist of the Year in 2019 as well as giving her the Malcolm Law Award for Investigative Journalism. Wadhwani is formerly an investigative reporter with The Tennessean who focused on the impact of public policies on the people and places across Tennessee.

MORE FROM AUTHOR