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4 big questions about the Nashville school shooting (and what we know so far)

A mourner holds a sign on Wednesday reading "Why? Why?" at a makeshift memorial for victims of a shooting at the Covenant School campus, in Nashville, Tenn.
Brendan Smialowski
AFP via Getty Images
A mourner holds a sign on Wednesday reading "Why? Why?" at a makeshift memorial for victims of a shooting at the Covenant School campus, in Nashville, Tenn.

Monday's deadly school shooting set in motion a familiar cycle of condolences, calls to action and open-ended questions.

Police have identified Audrey Hale as the shooter who opened fire at the Covenant School, a Nashville, Tenn., Presbyterian school, killing three 9-year-olds and three adults. But the investigation into why and how the violence unfolded is only just beginning.

Here's a look at some of the big queries and where they stand.

What was the shooter's motive?

Hale, a 28-year-old who used he/him pronouns, according to authorities, was a former student of the school, Nashville Police Chief John Drake said at a news conference on Tuesday.

The shooter left behind "a manifesto," Drake said, that included a map of the school, with details about how Hale would enter it and carry out an attack.

But police stressed there was "no evidence" that specific victims, such as the head of the school, had been targeted.

"This school — this church building — was a target of the shooter," said Nashville police spokesperson Don Aaron. "But we have no information at present to indicate that the shooter was targeting any one of the six individuals who were murdered."

When asked specifically whether Hale had targeted the school for religious reasons, Drake said he couldn't confirm. He added that police are working with the FBI to fully examine Hale's writings.

Could police have confiscated the shooter's guns?

The shooter's parents believed their child had sold Hale's only gun and didn't have any firearms at home, Drake said.

In actuality, Hale had legally purchased seven firearms from five local gun stores. Three of those weapons — including two assault-style firearms — were used in the shooting.

Hale was under "a doctor's care for an emotional disorder," Drake said, but "law enforcement knew nothing about the treatment."

In some states, "red flag" laws empower law enforcement to confiscate weapons from individuals due to mental illness or concerns from relatives.

That's not quite the case in Tennessee: Police can take someone's guns if a court deems the person mentally incompetent, if the individual is "judicially committed" to a mental institution or if the person is placed under a conservatorship.

Girls embrace in front of a makeshift memorial for victims by the Covenant School building in Nashville on Wednesday.
Brendan Smialowski / AFP via Getty Images
AFP via Getty Images
Girls embrace in front of a makeshift memorial for the shooting victims at the Covenant School building on Wednesday.

Similarly, being under a doctor's care alone wouldn't have met the threshold to prohibit the sale of weapons to Hale. When it comes to emotional disorders, Tennessee law prohibits the sale of guns to only those individuals found by a court to pose a danger to themselves or others.

Drake noted the lack of any red-flag laws in Tennessee, but he added, when questioned by reporters, that police would've "tried to get those weapons" had they received a report that Hale was suicidal or threatening to kill someone.

The Metropolitan Nashville Police Department has not yet returned a call from NPR asking for clarification on policies that Drake may have been referring to.

Will the FBI or state agencies investigate this as a hate crime?

Police say that Hale was previously a student of the Covenant School and targeted the building, which is also a church.

On Tuesday, Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., took that to mean the attack was "targeted, that is, against Christians" and began calling for federal agencies to investigate the shooting as a hate crime.

Hawley also introduced a Senate resolution to formally condemn the shooting as a hate crime.

Hawley's choice in framing caught on quickly with other Republican leaders. In a budget hearing on Tuesday, Sen. John Kennedy, R-La., asked Attorney General Merrick Garland whether he planned to open a hate crime investigation into the shooting "for the targeting of Christians."

"As of now, motive hasn't been identified," Garland said, adding that the FBI was working with local police on the investigation.

Without a living suspect or evidence of accomplices to charge, authorities would designate this a hate crime largely for data-reporting purposes.

A little over 14% of hate crimes in the U.S. are connected to religion, according to the FBI's most recent data set.

Will lawmakers pass gun control measures?

The U.S. flag flies at half mast outside the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday.
Stefani Reynolds / AFP via Getty Images
AFP via Getty Images
The U.S. flag flies at half-staff outside the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday.

Monday's mass shooting was just one of 130 tracked in the U.S. this year, according to the Gun Violence Archive. And as with these previous shootings, lawmakers were once again quick to concede that Monday's act of violence likely won't be enough to shake off the stalemate on gun reform.

On Tuesday, President Biden followed his consistent call for an assault weapons ban with a rhetorical question: "Why do I keep saying this if it's not happening?" he asked. "Because I want you to know who isn't doing it, who isn't helping to put pressure on them."

Republican lawmakers, including Rep. Tim Burchett of Tennessee, told reporters that gun laws "don't work" to curb violence.

"I don't see any real role we could do other than mess things up," he said on the steps of the U.S. Capitol. "I don't think you're going to stop the gun violence. You've got to change people's hearts."

"We can all agree on one thing: that every human has great value. And we will act to prevent this from happening again," said Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee, a Republican, in a Tuesday evening video address.

He didn't clarify what that action would look like. Lee has been a vocal opponent of gun control throughout his time in office, calling for every school to have a resource officer staffed on campus.

If anything, the ruby-red state appears to be leaning further into its reputation as a gun-friendly state. As Nashville mourned and protested on Tuesday, a federal judge quietly paved the way for Tennessee to reduce the minimum age at which residents can carry handguns publicly from 21 to 18.

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Emily Olson
Emily Olson is on a three-month assignment as a news writer and live blog editor, helping shape NPR's digital breaking news strategy.