Shooting death of Belmont college student reignites Tennessee gun-safety, mental illness debate
NASHVILLE — Often allies, Tennessee House Speaker Cameron Sexton, R-Crossville, and Lt. Gov. Randy McNally, the Republican speaker of the Senate from Oak Ridge, find themselves at odds over the death an 18-year-old college student in Nashville who was walking on a track when struck by a stray bullet.
The bullet was allegedly fired by a man clinically diagnosed with an intellectual disability, an IQ in the 50s and a history of violent behavior as an adult.
During a recent interview with Nashville radio station WTN 99.7 host Matt Murphy, Sexton said had the Senate passed his mental health bill and other measures during its special session on gun safety in August, Belmont University freshman Jillian Ludwig might still be alive.
Had the bill passed with changes proposed by Davidson County District Attorney General Glenn Funk, Sexton said, Taylor probably would have been involuntarily committed in September, “and this incident never would have happened. That’s the frustrating part of this.”
Even if House Republicans passed the bill, it wouldn’t have become law given the Senate’s position, said Sexton, whom a number of Republicans believe may run for governor in the future.
“The Senate as a whole was unwilling to pass legislation,” he told WTN.
McNally pushed back.
“No action proposed by either house of the General Assembly in the special session would have prevented the death of Jillian Ludwig,” McNally said in a statement. “That said, this is an extremely tragic case that should never be repeated in the state of Tennessee.
“I look forward to working with Speaker Sexton and members of the state House and state Senate on this issue,” the lieutenant governor continued. “We must work together to ensure that, whether in prison or in a mental health facility, dangerous individuals are separated from civil society. The safety of our law abiding citizens must remain paramount.”
Sexton and McNally’s relationship goes back decades. Sexton in 2019 described to the Chattanooga Times Free Press how he first got to know McNally in 1994 while working on one of McNally’s Senate campaigns.
Ludwig was shot Nov. 7 and died the following day. Police arrested Shaquille Taylor, 29, who faced charges of aggravated assault and evidence tampering when the case went before a Davidson County grand jury.
Taylor has been charged criminally several times in the past for gun-related crimes. In 2021, he was charged with three counts of assault with a deadly weapon after he and another man were accused of shooting at a woman driver with her two children in the vehicle’s back seat.
Funk’s office prosecuted Taylor in Davidson County Criminal Court on April 13 for aggravated assault with a deadly weapon. Davidson County Criminal Court Judge Angelita Blackshear Dalton dismissed the case after three court-appointed doctors unanimously testified Taylor was incompetent to stand trial.
Court documents describe Taylor developing pneumonia at birth leading to a brain infection. Taylor functions at a kindergarten level, the order explained. Because Taylor also did not meet the criteria for involuntary commitment, the court had “reached the limit of its authority,” the judge wrote.
Funk later noted in a statement that for a person to be involuntarily committed to a mental health facility, at least two doctors must have executed certificates that the person is suffering from a severe mental illness or developmental disability that causes the person to be a substantial risk of serious harm to himself or others. The doctors must also find there are no other less restrictive measures than commitment, Funk said.
The DA called it a “nearly impossible standard” that affects public safety.
“The law must be altered to accurately balance individual needs with public safety,” Funk said. “At the same time Tennessee must provide more beds and staffing resources to handle dangerous individuals.”
Four months later, Taylor was arrested in a grocery store parking lot driving a Ford F-150 pickup truck that had been carjacked by two men wearing ski masks Sept. 16, police said. He was charged with felony auto theft and released on a $20,000 bond. A warrant was issued when he failed to appear in court.
Taylor didn’t show up for a Nov. 3 hearing in the case and there was an outstanding warrant for him in the carjacking case.
School shooting ignites debate
On March 27, in the midst of this year’s legislative session, a former student opened fire at The Covenant School in Nashville and killed three 9-year-old children and three adults.
The shooter, 28-year-old Audrey Hale, legally bought seven firearms from five local gun stores, three of which were used at the school shooting, The Associated Press reported. Hale was under a doctor’s care for an undisclosed emotional disorder and was not known to police before the attack, Metropolitan Nashville Police Chief John Drake said at a news conference after the shooting.
Following the shooting, the Capitol erupted in massive protests as parents, teens, children and other adults, including Democratic lawmakers and a number of Covenant parents, demanded new gun safeguards and restrictions during lawmakers’ regular session.
Lee proposed an an extreme risk protection order measure that would have set up a judicial process to determine whether firearms should be removed from someone deemed to be a public threat. His fellow Republicans, many of them adamant Second Amendment advocates, balked and quickly gavelled themselves out of the regular session.
The governor then called them back into a special session where House and Senate Republicans argued. Senate Republican committee chairs said the issues would be better hashed out in a regular session while Sexton called for more immediate action. But with Republican senators deciding nothing useful would occur in the heated environment, the session soon ended with no actions taken.
Asked Monday if he expects to bring his bill back up in the 2024 session, Lee said no.
“I’m not looking to bring that bill,” the governor said, but added he is “looking for an opportunity” to do something advancing public safety in the next session that begins Jan. 9.
Noting that any number of ideas came up during the special session, the governor said, “I suspect we’re going to see them again in the regular session looking at ways to provide a safer environment for people in Tennessee. The General Assembly’s very interested in that. We should never stop talking about that.”
Asked what he thinks about Speakers Sexton and McNally sometimes at loggerheads, Lee said both men are “very focused that we lead in this state and we service the people in this state. And our office is working together with both of them.”
Gun bills delayed
Prior to the Covenant shooting, pro-Second Amendment Republican hardliners pushed multiple bills seeking to expand gun-carry in Tennessee. But following the school shooting, Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, moved all gun-related bills, both pro and con, to 2024.
Democratic lawmakers criticized the lack of action, and three House Democrats staged an impromptu floor demonstration that ultimately led to Republicans expelling two of them while a third avoided ouster by a single vote.
The gunman in the Belmont shooting allegedly fired from across the street and was aiming at a car when a bullet struck Ludwig in the head while she walked on a track at Edgehill Community Memorial Gardens Park, according to police. In Nashville, hundreds of students and others gathered to mourn and honor Ludwig, a music major from Wall Township, New Jersey. Funeral services were held Nov. 17 in New Jersey. Hundreds gathered to pay their respects, WABC news reported.
Senate Majority Leader Jack Johnson, R-Franklin, told WTN recently that conversations are underway with judges, prosecutors and other members of law enforcement about what rises to the level of warranting involuntary commitment.
“Again, I respect we need to be careful about involuntarily committing people, but for an individual like (Taylor) who has been deemed to be incompetent to stand trail and we know has a violent history, it is inconceivable I think to a reasonable person that he just be released back onto the streets,” Johnson said.
Johnson said there have been other instances like the Belmont shooting in which someone was determined to be incompetent to stand trial and released where in other jurisdictions the judge ordered they be committed involuntarily.
“Why is that happening in some jurisdictions and not others?” Johnson asked. “Because that tells me there are judges out there who interpret the existing statute as giving you levers of power, the tools necessary to remove that person from society.”
And that is something lawmakers should take a close look at, Johnson said.