Almost two months after a gunman fatally shot three children and three adults at a private Christian school in Nashville, the lack of information about the motive has led to a bitter legal battle over whether a search of the shooter’s home found handwritten journals and writings were found and the car should be opened to the public.
Between arguments over the constitutional right of access to public records and a political row over gun control legislation are the parents of about 100 families at Covenant School who have made it clear they want the material to remain classified, at least until then The surviving classmates finish the school year.
“It’s such a heavy burden for them to put themselves back in the middle of all this when they’re just trying to heal,” Eric G. Osborne, an attorney for the families, said at a court hearing Monday. “Of course they wouldn’t do this unless they seriously believed that the publication of these writings would have a very negative impact on them.”
Journalists, a gun rights group and others have sued to force the publication of the writings. Much of the hearing, however, was devoted to whether Tennessee law allows the parents, the school itself and the partner church on campus to have a legal voice in the dispute, a question the judge planned to answer by the end of Wednesday.
“I think it’s a good thing to get the information that needs to be released,” said Davidson County Chancery Court judge Chancellor I’Ashea L. Myles, who acknowledged the case was “uncharted territory.” and that’s what sensitivity asked for as it progressed.
Even if the court rules in the parents’ favour, the thorny question remains of how much to reveal about the shooter’s motivations and final thoughts. Officials have said they will most likely redact some of the material should the court order its release, as they balance First Amendment protections and the need for a public statement against fears it will lead to more violence and the spread of mass killings could strengthen.
The writings can also help build a growing body of research examining patterns in similar attacks and tracing the spread of bigoted beliefs.
“One of the reasons we know so much about mass shooting today — things we didn’t know in the past — is because of what the perpetrators do and say,” said Adam Lankford, a professor at the University of Alabama who studied mass shootings. But aside from listening to the survivors, he added, “the best argument for not declassifying it is to just say, ‘We don’t want to give these perpetrators what they want.'”
After a deadly shooting at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, in 1999, the two gunmen’s images and motivations occupied cable news and front pages for weeks. Her sinister notoriety was reflected in several mass shootings known today as the Columbine Effect, as isolated and troubled young people used these killings as guides to gain shame through violence in their own communities.
The Nashville attacker “considered the actions of other mass murderers,” police said in early April, but noted at the time that a motive was still unknown.
In the decades since Columbine, news organizations, including the New York Times, have refined a number of guidelines for reporting mass shootings: largely avoid repeated use of the shooter’s name and likeness, and focus on the victims and survivors.
But releasing an attacker’s writings and how to share them is more complicated, and courts, news organizations and law enforcement agencies have wrestled with it before.
By order of the Colorado Supreme Court, nearly 1,000 pages of documents related to the Columbine shooting were released in 2006. The Hartford Courant won a five-year court battle to see documents belonging to the shooter responsible for the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre.
Social media has somewhat negated the need for court intervention, as several mass shooters have deliberately left a trail of hateful and malicious thoughts across the internet, including in the Buffalo and El Paso, Texas attacks. But it also allowed for the easy dissemination of writings and graphic images, which experts say could increase the risk and outweigh the research and investigative benefits of publishing some writings.
“It’s millions of people all commenting and then commenting and speculating, and that’s where it gets really difficult,” said James Meindl, a professor of applied behavioral analysis at the University of Memphis, who studies mass shooter behavior and the ways how news is disseminated outlets can report responsibly.
The lack of a clear motive or significant social media posts from the Nashville assassin has already led to heavy speculation. After police officers said the gunman was transgender, right-wing activists stepped up their attacks on transgender people, claiming without any evidence a connection between the shooting and the attacker’s gender identity and speculating a conspiracy to cover up details about a murder at a Christian school.
Pressure to act on gun legislation has also prompted Republican state legislators to push for the papers’ release after a turbulent period when two black lawmakers were expelled and later reinstated over protests in the House of Representatives who called for gun control but did not do so Action was taken on all measures affecting access to firearms.
Gov. Bill Lee, a Republican, called a special session in August to consider what he called public safety legislation and released a draft proposal that could allow judges to confiscate guns from people considered a danger to human beings apply to yourself or others. Citing upcoming legislative work, Republicans called for the documents to provide comprehensive information about potential policy changes.
“If we hope to pass meaningful legislation that will effectively deter these types of targeted attacks, we need to have all the facts to make informed decisions,” more than 60 House Republicans wrote in a letter to Metropolitan Nashville this month Police Department.
A Republican state senator, Todd Gardenhire, is also among those who have sued for the recordings’ release, citing “research findings” in “writing new school safety laws.”
Some Democrats and gun control advocates worry that Republicans will focus on the specific content of the scriptures to circumvent what they say is the larger issue of firearm access.
Several news outlets, including The Tennessean, have argued that state public records laws require the documents to be released, warning of a violation of First Amendment protections.
The Tennessee Firearms Association and James Hammond, a former Tennessee County Sheriff, are among the outside law enforcement and conservative groups who have also claimed a violation of the state Public Records Act in the lawsuit to release the records, repeating the argument have that these are important to learn more about the motive before the special session of the legislature.
On Monday, her attorneys argued that as a private school, Covenant School could not claim school security exemptions under the Public Records Act. They also questioned whether the parents’ group had legal authority to intervene in the case or whether they were entitled to the protection afforded to crime victims.
Most of the parents have not yet identified themselves publicly as part of the lawsuits, and their attorneys say several have asked to remain anonymous if the case goes ahead.
Nashville law enforcement officials have argued that releasing the filings ahead of time would jeopardize an ongoing investigation; They currently believe the gunman killed by police at the school acted alone. The Metropolitan Nashville Police Department, in a separate court filing, had not objected to the release of a redacted compilation of the shooter’s writings, although Davidson County Chancellor Myles is busy reviewing what a city attorney called a “substantial” body of evidence.
Lt. Brent Gibson, the officer overseeing the investigation, estimated in a court filing that it would take police a year to complete their work and warned, “Releasing the pieces of the puzzle too quickly could jeopardize the putting together of this complicated jigsaw puzzle.” He added that the agency has many records, such as news data and Internet search history, and complete their interviews.
Chancellor Myles will continue to review documents and evidence in police possession, as well as previous Tennessee cases, before deciding whether the parents have the legal right to intervene.
“My goal is to make sure whatever needs to come out can come out in a way that’s protective of everyone involved but also allows for open access,” she said.