By Jonathan Allen and Brendan O’Brien
NASHVILLE (Reuters) -First lady Jill Biden visited Nashville on Wednesday to join a memorial vigil for the three children and three adults shot to death this week at a Christian day school, including two educators who were close friends of the Tennessee governor’s wife.
The outdoor ceremony was scheduled to start about 90 minutes before sunset, at a public park in the heart of Nashville, the state capital and Tennessee’s largest city, several miles from the scene of Monday’s massacre.
Three 9-year-old students of the Covenant School in the city’s Green Hills neighborhood were fatally shot along with custodian Mike Hill, 61, the school’s headmaster, Katherine Koonce, 60, and substitute teacher Cynthia Peak, 61.
The slain children were identified as Evelyn Dieckhaus, William Kinney and Hallie Scruggs, whose father is head pastor of Covenant Presbyterian Church, where the school is housed.
The assailant, a former Covenant School student identified as Audrey Elizabeth Hale, 28, was shot to death by police minutes after the attack on the school had begun. A motive for the killings remains undetermined.
Mourners have since left a collection of flowers, balloons and stuffed teddy bears at the school’s gate. Six white crosses were placed nearby, each adorned with a blue heart, a victim’s name and a Bible verse: “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.”
‘THERE IS PAIN’
Monday’s shooting, the latest of dozens in U.S. schools this year alone, has touched a particularly raw nerve, in part because three victims were so young and because it scorched Nashville’s tight-knit Christian community.
“Many Tennesseans are feeling the exact same way: The emptiness, the lack of understanding, the desperate desire for answers, the desperate need for hope,” said Tennessee Governor Bill Lee in a video posted on his Twitter feed.
Lee said both Koonce and Peak had at one time taught at the same school as his wife, Maria, and that the three remained close friends for decades. Lee said Peak and his wife had planned to dine together on Monday.
“I understand there is pain. I understand the desperation to have answers, to place blame, to argue about a solution that could prevent this horrible tragedy,” he said. “This is not a time for hate or rage.”
Some in extreme right-wing circles have seized on the case to vilify transgender people, after police said the shooter identified as transgender. It has since emerged that Hale was going by the name Aiden and using male pronouns on social media in recent months.
The shootings only heightened a sense of anxiety in the LGBTQ community amid moves by Republican politicians in numerous states to outlaw gender-affirming medical care for transgender youth, including a ban enacted recently in Tennessee.
Jill Biden arrived in Nashville on Wednesday afternoon to attend the vigil, which was to be led by Mayor John Cooper, a number of city officials and clergy. Musicians Sheryl Crow, Margo Price and Ketch Secor were expected to perform.
SMALL ARSENAL AT HOME
Metropolitan Nashville Police Chief John Drake said investigators seeking clues to what precipitated the killings were examining maps and writings in a 60-page notebook found at Hale’s home. The writings suggested plans to carry out shootings at other locations, but authorities have yet to pinpoint a motive, Drake said.
The shooter was armed at the time of the attack with two assault-style weapons and a 9mm handgun, which police later found were among seven firearms that Hale had legally purchased in recent years.
While Hale targeted the school – which serves about 200 students from pre-kindergarten to sixth grade – the individual victims were slain at random, police have said.
In a CNN interview on Wednesday, Drake said it remained unclear what role, if any, Hale’s gender identity, religious beliefs or educational background played in the attack, stressing that the investigation was in its early stages. He had said days ago that investigators believed Hale harbored some resentment at having attended Covenant as a child.
“There may have been some resentment. But we haven’t been able to confirm it,” Drake said on Wednesday. “As of right now, we don’t have any indication there was any problems at the school or home.”
Investigators are also looking at the mental health of the shooter, who was under a doctor’s care for an emotional disorder, Drake said, noting that law enforcement was never contacted and she was never committed to an institution.
As with most high-profile mass shootings, the latest attack has added fuel to a long-running national debate over gun ownership rights and regulations.
Tennessee does not require a permit to possess a firearm, regardless of whether it is concealed or openly carried.
(Reporting by Jonathan Allen in Nashville and Brendan O’Brien in Chicago; Additional reporting by Rich McKay in AtlantaWriting and additional reporting by Steve Gorman in Los AngelesEditing by Mark Porter and Matthew Lewis)
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