When a 28-year-old former student attacked a church-affiliated school in Nashville on Monday, they packed a small arsenal. Police described the weapons as two “assault-style rifles,” a 9mm handgun, and “significant ammunition”—enough firepower to blast through the building’s front doors, then kill three children and three staff members in a matter of minutes.
Unlike the massacre in Uvalde, Texas, where responding officers, terrified of the gunman’s AR-style rifle, cowered in a hallway as the rampage continued, police in Nashville acted quickly and decisively to storm the school and take out the heavily-armed shooter. Nashville’s police chief said Tuesday that the shooter had purchased all of the weapons legally, and in the aftermath of yet another senseless school killing spree, President Joe Biden renewed his call for Congress to pass an assault weapons ban and do more to stop gun violence.
“It's ripping our communities apart,” Biden said. “It’s ripping at the very soul of the nation.”
But less than 48 hours after the tragedy, the prospects already look bleak for an assault weapons ban or any other new gun control measures passing Congress and reaching Biden’s desk. Republican leaders are unwilling to budge and the debate over exactly what types of guns and accessories ought to be restricted obscures a grim reality. No matter what happens— including a federal ban on assault weapons—it will still be easy for Americans to acquire firearms capable of inflicting mass casualties.
Nashville police have not yet said exactly what the make and caliber of guns were used in the attack, or which of the weapons were used to kill the victims. But experts who reviewed photos and video footage posted online by the department told VICE News that the firearms are both extremely common and difficult to regulate, with one type already targeted by the Biden administration in an ongoing and controversial federal crackdown.
The Nashville shooter carried an AR-style pistol, a more compact version of the common assault rifle. It was equipped with an accessory called a “stabilizing brace,” which enables firing from the shoulder (like a rifle) or for the gun to be strapped to the shooter’s forearm. Under new regulations announced in January by the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco Firearms and Explosives (ATF), such weapons are now considered “short-barreled rifles,” which require federal registration to own because they have long been considered dangerously concealable.
The Biden administration’s restriction on stabilizing braces faces at least seven separate legal challenges from pro-gun organizations and conservative states, and Republicans in Congress are pushing for a repeal. The House Judiciary Committee canceled a hearing scheduled Tuesday on the issue, with Chairman Jim Jordan reportedly accusing Democrats of trying to “politicize the tragedy” to focus on pistol braces, which were also used in previous mass shootings in Dayton, Ohio, and Boulder, Colorado.
The ATF estimates that Americans own more than 3 million stabilizing braces, and they remain easy to acquire. After VICE News reported last week on third-party Amazon sellers selling pistol braces disguised as bike handlebars and other parts, the company removed more than two dozen listings and vowed to purge other similar items for violating site policies. Google, Facebook, and Etsy have also struggled to stop similar prohibited sales in the past.
Proponents of the braces argue they allow disabled people who wouldn’t otherwise be able to safely aim and fire a gun to enjoy target practice. The inventor testified before Congress last week, saying he created his product for military veterans and that Biden’s ban outlaws a “widely adopted safety feature that will arguably make the sport of pistol shooting less safe.”
But according to Nick Suplina, senior vice president of law and policy and Everytown for Gun Safety, which advocates for gun control, the stabilizing braces also enable shooters to have more precise aim and control over a powerful gun small enough to be tucked away in a backpack or hidden under a jacket.
“This just further shows that this isn't about disabled veterans shooting heavy pistols,” Suplina said. “This is an accessory that helps make firearms more dangerous.”
The Nashville shooter’s primary weapon appeared to be a Keltec Sub2000, a type of rifle known as a pistol-caliber carbine because it fires the same type of bullets as a 9mm or .40 caliber handgun. It has a stock that collapses down to make it compact and concealable, and this one was equipped with a sling to be carried over the shoulder. In video footage, the shooter could be seen wearing a tactical vest and stalking the school’s hallways with the rifle at the ready.
“These are weapons that are meant to be used offensively,” Suplina said. “That's why we're seeing mass shooters use them, and to really deadly effect even when we have a really efficient police response, even when there are armed guards and other presences, it doesn't matter because you can inflict so much damage so quickly.”
But the Keltec Sub2000 has also been one of the best-selling semi-automatic rifles in the U.S. for years, with one 2016 industry roundup describing it as “a less pricey alternative to the popular (and controversial) AR-15.” It remains a popular product according to Mike Cargill, owner of Austin’s Central Texas Gun Works, who told VICE News the Keltec Sub2000 is lighter and thinner than the typical AR-style rifle.
“You can fold it down into a smaller version to carry it around or put it into something,” Cargill said. “It’s mainly for people that go backpacking and want to have a rifle they can shoot with two arms rather than have a handgun. They can stick in a backpack to go hunting or hiking.”
Cargill, who teaches gun safety and private security classes, said the Nashville shooter appeared to be mimicking room-clearing tactics used by police and military special operations, but without any of the training.
“It kinda reminds me of a group of people getting together and pretending to be anime characters and things of that nature,” Cargill said. “It’s someone thinking they’re in ‘Call of Duty’ or something like that.”
Nashville’s police chief told reporters they are investigating the motive and background of Audrey Elizabeth Hale, who left behind a manifesto detailing plans for the attack. Hale bought at least seven firearms from five different local gun stores in Nashville. When police searched Hale’s home, they found “a sawed-off shotgun, a second shotgun, and other evidence.”
Chief John Drake described Hale as being “under a doctor's care for an emotional disorder,” and said Hale’s parents were only aware of one firearm purchase and thought Hale had gotten rid of the gun. Hale’s parents thought their child should not own weapons and were under the impression there were no more weapons in the house, he added.
“As it turned out, [Hale] had been hiding several weapons within the house,” Drake said.
Tennessee does not have a red flag law that would’ve enabled authorities to confiscate Hale’s weapons, but Drake said police would have attempted to intervene had they received a report that Hale was planning an attack or suicide.
“And as we've seen too many times over the years, any gun can kill a child”
In more than three-quarters of the mass shootings that occurred from 1966 to 2019, the perpetrators legally purchased at least one of their weapons, according to data from the National Institute of Justice. After the Nashville attack this week, Tennessee’s Republican Rep. Tim Burchett said, according to Axios, that the laws are fine and that Congress doesn’t need to act: "We're not going to fix it, criminals are going to be criminals."
Rob Pincus, executive vice president of the pro-gun Second Amendment Organization, is among those who feel the debate over banning specific firearms and devices like the stabilizing brace should be refocused on stopping shooters before they act.
“The underlying problem is people are trying to kill people,” Pincus said. “We may never be able to even pretend that we will stop all spree killings involving firearms or otherwise. The important thing is that we do what we can to reduce the number, and that means proactive intervention. At the end of the day, it's family members, friends, community members and individual gun owners who are watching the behavior of the other people in their world.”
But on the other side of the equation, gun control advocates look at the Nashville attack and see weapons that were used in exactly the way that lawmakers feared when they enacted bans and restrictions like the tightening of rules on stabilizing braces.
David Pucino, deputy chief counsel at Giffords Law Center, told VICE News an assault weapons ban like the one that Biden called for this week could have prevented the shooter from obtaining two of the three weapons used in the attack, with the exception of the 9mm pistol.
“We're talking about weapons of different destructive capacities, but at the end of the day, a gun is a gun,” Pucino said. “And as we've seen too many times over the years, any gun can kill a child.”
Follow Keegan Hamilton on Twitter.