A group of students and parents who were protesting gun violence encountered former House Republican Caucus Vice Chair Scotty Campbell in a Capitol Hill hallway during the waning days of the Tennessee General Assembly’s 2023 session. They asked him to do something about assault-style guns like the AR-15 the Covenant School shooter used last month.
Campbell coughed up the usual talking points and became visibly uncomfortable when a particularly insistent mother pressed the point and said the Covenant children suffered unsurvivable wounds because they were shot by an AR-15.
That’s when he said this:
“There are a lot of ways that people can die.”
Then he launched into the standard GOP talking points about mental health and safety.
Meanwhile, he and his colleagues were attempting to expel three Democrats for breaching “decorum” by taking over the well and encouraging the protesters. What neither the protesters or anyone not a member of “leadership” knew was that Campbell had been censured – secretly – for workplace discrimination and harassment of a female legislative intern.
At about the same time, Majority Leader William Lamberth (AKA “Leader Lamberth”) said this to another group of protesters: “If there is a firearm out there that you’re comfortable being shot with, please show me which one it is.”
Lamberth will be back in a few weeks for the special session Gov. Bill Lee has called to deal with gun violence. Campbell won’t. He resigned from the legislature when news of his super-secret slap on the wrist became public knowledge. But it’s likely that he won’t miss much since it’s unlikely that his former colleagues on House Speaker Cameron Sexton’s leadership team will support Lee’s “order of protection” recommendation to keep guns out of the hands of dangerous people.
This dogged defense of the unfettered right to own and carry firearms takes me back to Sunday, July 27, 2008, when a man carrying a guitar case walked into the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church auditorium, pulled out a sawed-off shotgun and started firing. He killed usher Greg McKendry and visitor Linda Kraeger and wounded six more members of the congregation – not enough to be officially classified a “mass killing” under the statute that defines mass killings as “three or more killings in a single incident” – before he was taken down by a group of unarmed church members who gang tackled him when he stopped to reload.
A “manifesto” found in the killer’s car said he intended to keep shooting until someone killed him. He hated liberals, non-whites, homosexuals and Unitarians, whom he claimed had snubbed him. He was a voracious consumer of right-wing radio talking points and Fox News.
He particularly hated Brian Griffin, the church’s director of lifespan religious education. Griffin had been getting death threats after Metro Pulse ran a story about the church’s Spectrum Coffeehouse, which provided a safe space for the gay and questioning teens he was working with.
“Turns out, it was the shooter (whose name will not be mentioned in this column). He told the cops that he came to kill Brian Griffin,” Griffin said.
“The TVUUC gunman bought a shotgun at a pawn shop and sawed it off so the shot would spread through the crowd. Three shots killed two people – and wounded six. Four of those wounds were life-threatening. There is some disagreement that he was reloading, but the consensus is that he was. Terry (Uselton), who ran toward him and tackled him, didn’t think he was reloading because the barrel was pointing directly at his chest as he ran toward the guy. But it all happened so fast – the three shots lasted about five seconds, and then he was tackled from three different directions. John (Bohstedt) and a couple of other people are certain that he was reloading, and I tend to think so myself.
“I have been saying for years that I’m glad we didn’t depend on an armed security guard or an armed church usher, because more would be dead if someone had been fumbling around trying to get him with a pistol. Tackling him was quick and efficient. I do know this – if he had been using an AR-style assault rifle, far more would be dead, especially if he had been able to fire from the stage, which was his original plan. He was turned away from the back-stage entrance and came in the main entrance, so he fired from there, with people standing all around him.
“He had 76 unfired shotgun shells. I got in the tussle and managed to scatter the shells everywhere. One of the unfired shells landed in the wound in Greg’s chest, where his heart had been. That’s an image I can’t get out of my mind.”
There are other images he can’t forget: seeing a man with the guitar case walk into the church and be greeted by children who pointed him to the auditorium. Gathering a group of kids and running up the hill with them to seek safety at Second Presbyterian Church and later remembering that this was the same route Confederate soldiers took when launching the Battle of Ft. Sanders (he would later learn that the killer was an avid Confederate sympathizer).
Another thing he can’t forget is that he is the one who talked McKendry into serving as an usher. When he was finally able to leave the church after all the day’s terrible events, he found his car full of cardboard boxes and a note that said, “I thought these might come in handy as you move your daughter to college next week. Greg.”
The next time Griffin saw the shooter was in a courtroom, where he and another victim were seated behind the defendant and his lawyer. The killer let them know he knew they were there.
“He kept pulling his hair back, and each time he did it, he extended his bird finger. He flipped us the bird about a dozen times during that hearing.”
This is what Griffin would tell the legislators about why the shooter’s choice of weapons matters.
“I think it is clear that, if he had an AR, he could have just kept firing, and that Terry would have been killed. Even with someone trying to tackle him from behind – which is what John did – he could still have gotten off a bunch more shots, and dozens would have been killed.
“It was shoulder-to-shoulder in there, standing room only. That high-powered ammunition would have cut the place into hamburger. We were lucky that all he could afford was a cast-off shotgun from a pawn shop. To this day I am angry that a guy who had a judicial restraining order against him for violence against his wife could still buy a gun. There is zero excuse for that.”
Betty Bean writes a Thursday opinion column for KnoxTNToday.com.