After the school shooting, Nashville grieves and reflects on its divisions

Shortly after the shooting in which six people were killed this week at a Nashville elementary school, Senator Charlane Oliver, a freshman Democrat who represents much of the city, stands before reporters and wipes her tears. She then attacked her Republican colleagues for systematically relaxing the state’s gun laws when they should have been tightened, she said.

“I believe in karma,” she said. “And there will come a day when every person who did nothing, God will help them.”

Nashville, Tennessee’s thriving capital, has typically brought a certain civility to its management of the defining tensions — between “countryside and city, polished elites and gritty commoners, a retrospective past and foresight,” as historian Benjamin Houston put it. It.

In the mid-20th century, city leaders and civil rights activists negotiated a largely peaceful integration of the city’s public spaces. More recently, locals have taken pride in the concept of “Nashville fun.” And for decades, liberals and conservatives have mingled in a state of relative comity, making for a city that can feel “radically disordered,” as critic Stephen Metcalf put it. once wrote in describing the politics of Johnny Cash, one of Nashville’s many musical heroes.

But even before the horror of this week’s shooting, that sense of respectful accommodation was becoming increasingly difficult to maintain. And some in Nashville say things could get exponentially harder after Monday’s massacre, which touched on two polarizing topics: Tennessee’s increasingly open gun policy and frictions over LGBTQ people’s rights exacerbated by new laws. Republican-driven laws targeting drag shows and ban puberty-delaying treatments for transgender children.

Hundreds of protesters, including teenagers, children in their plaid school uniforms and mothers with toddlers on their hips, flooded the state capitol on Thursday and chanted “Vote them out” and “We don’t want your thoughts and prayers” outside. A tense standoff ensued inside as a few Democratic legislators interrupted usual procedures to join protesters by calling for stricter gun laws.

The gunman, identified by police as Audrey E. Hale, was a 28-year-old former student of Covenant School, the Christian elementary school attacked Monday. The attacker used three weapons that police said were legally purchased, including a military-style semi-automatic rifle. Officers shot and killed the attacker minutes after they arrived at the school.

Confusion has arisen over the shooter’s gender identity. Metropolitan Nashville Police Department Chief John Drake said the attacker identified as transgender, and officials used “she” and “her” to refer to the attacker. But in a social media post and a LinkedIn profile, the shooter appeared to identify as male in recent months.

Anger erupted almost immediately in liberal circles. “May I ask you, @GovBillLee why you passed permitless carry in 2021?” wrote Nashville-based country star Margo Price on Twitter, referencing the bill signed by Republican Tennessee Governor Bill Lee that allows most adults to carry handguns without a permit. “Our kids are dying and getting shot at school, but you’re more concerned about drag queens than smart gun laws? You have blood on your hands.”

The anger was just as intense from some Nashville conservatives, who tried to link the attack to the attacker’s gender identity. On Tuesday, Clay Travis, a Nashville-based radio host, wrote in a tweet: “This was a terror attack on religious people by a deranged insane trans person.”

The language was harsher from Matt Walsh, a controversial right-wing podcaster at The Daily Wire, the conservative media company co-founded by commentator Ben Shapiro. The outlet moved to Nashville from Los Angeles with the goal of building a national multimedia empire in the spiritual cradle of country music.

Mr. Walsh, who organized a rally against medical treatment for transgender youth in downtown Nashville last October, devoted a podcast this week to talking about the shooting.

“This isn’t about guns, and these goddamn scammers know damn well it’s not about guns,” said Mr. Walsh. He went on to describe “radical far-left transactivism” as a “hateful, violent movement.”

“Nashville fun” it wasn’t.

Lew Conner, 85, a Nashville attorney and longtime Republican candidate donor, said he was beginning to feel politically lost in a city he’s called home for decades.

Today, he said, Nashville liberals seemed to have become more liberal. But Mr. Conner blamed much of the change in tone on his fellow Republicans, especially those in the Statehouse, who accused Mr. Conner of waging a hateful war against a city long governed by moderate Democrats.

The state of the city is “very divided,” he said. “And you have this tragedy on top of it. I mean, it doesn’t get any worse than that.”

For years, Nashville has been led by a succession of mayors who have set a dovish tone for a Southern city bent on avoiding its past: In general, the mayors have been socially progressive, pro-growth, and pro-business. In recent years, however, the Nashville Metropolitan Council has become more progressive, reflecting a more liberal population: From 2015 to 2022, the percentage of residents who considered themselves liberal rose from 24 percent to 30 percent, according to Vanderbilt University polls.

John Geer, a political science professor at Vanderbilt, said the shift was likely related to the city’s rapid population growth. almost double the American average, and to the “big species” phenomenon, in which Americans increasingly try to live among people with the same political beliefs as their own.

As the city has moved to the left, Tennessee’s Republicans, who are on the rise in state politics, have taken a sharp turn to the right. The high-profile clashes between the city and the legislature are to some extent conflicts between urban and rural values, as many Republican legislators represent rural conservative Tennessee. In the state capital, where lawmakers are battling music industry types and the many newcomers flocking to the emerging tech industrycan also make the tension feel intimate and personal.

The partisan tension has spilled beyond the Capitol. In October, Vanderbilt University Medical Center announced it was suspending so-called gender-affirming surgeries for patients under the age of 18 after the medical center came under pressure from conservatives inside and outside the legislature.

“I think it’s a battle for the soul of Nashville,” said Lisa Quigley, a political strategist who used to be chief of staff to former U.S. Representative Jim Cooper, a Democrat.

Before the shooting, guns and social problems weren’t the only reasons Democrats and Republicans in Nashville were furious with each other.

Republicans last year redrawn Tennessee’s congressional map so that a Nashville district that had been held by a Democrat for nearly 150 years was split into three districts stretching far into conservative suburbs and rural areas, and attracted a strong preference for Republicans.

Later, the Metropolitan Council rejected an attempt to host the 2024 Republican National Convention in Nashville, sparking a wave of bills from the Republican legislature that were widely seen as retaliatory, including a new law significantly downsizing the council.

There have also been smaller moments when connections between the political divides have frayed.

Anna Caudill, a special education advocate in Nashville, worked at a school called Christ Presbyterian Academy from 2000 to 2008, where she befriended one of the victims of Monday’s shooting, Katherine Koonce, who worked at that school at the time. She also got to know the families of Governor Lee and Senator Marsha Blackburn, the far-right Republican from Tennessee, who both sent their children to Christ Presbyterian.

Ms. Caudill said she was friends with both families, in the spirit of the Nashville she first met when she moved to the city in the late 1990s.

But she said she was shocked to see Senator Blackburn take part in Mr. Walsh’s October rally against trans health care, especially when a group of Proud Boys showed up as supporters. “I was so angry, I couldn’t see very well,” said Ms Caudill, 50.

Some Nashville residents believe the old familiarity between the city’s left and right will survive the tragedy.

“I think there are tensions that are greater than they have been,” said Byron Trauger, a Nashville attorney and civic leader. “But yesterday morning I was in a meeting with some very conservative people, and they consider me moderate to liberal. And there was certainly no tension in that. I think some of the people who have come in like us to be divided, but the strength of the city has always been that we focus on making things better as opposed to some ideological framework.”

Of course, many people – perhaps most – do not process this anguished moment through politics. They do it through their lived experiences and, especially in the South, through faith.

Steven Curtis Chapman, a prominent Christian singer and songwriter who lives near Nashville, remembers Dr. Koonce, the head of Covenant, as a special educator who was an invaluable healing presence for his family after his 5-year-old daughter, Maria, was killed in an accident.

For him, Monday’s tragedy has more of a spiritual significance than a political one, at least in the immediate aftermath of the shooting.

“I believe that Katherine is with my Mary and with Jesus and with these students, and that God will wipe away all these tears and make all these broken things whole again,” he said.

Amid the escalating tensions in Nashville, there have also been numerous examples of people coming together to support the victims’ families and each other.

David Thomas, 52, the director of family counseling at Daystar Counseling Ministries, which counsels children and families, said he was moved this week when a local print shop rushed to produce materials he needed as he prepared to meet with families who were affected by the shooting.

“There’s a kindness coming from this town,” he said. “While we’ve had a lot of growth, there’s still some truth to this that this is a small town within a big city.”

Reporting was contributed by Emily Cochrane, Eliza Fawcett and Ruth Graham.