Opinion: Coming to grips with what you cannot ‘unsee’

File photo/Ted Shaffrey / The Associated Press / Emergency responders are outside Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, on Friday, Dec.14, 2012. A 20-year-old gunman killed 20 first-graders and six educators at the school.

Sanctity: "Holiness of life and character: Godliness. The quality or state of being holy or sacred: inviolability."

In calling legislators into an Aug. 21 special session to consider potential gun reform legislation, Gov. Bill Lee acknowledged that "action is needed." To that end, "we'll ... pursue thoughtful, practical measures that strengthen the safety of Tennesseans, preserve Second Amendment rights, prioritize due process protections, support law enforcement and address mental health."

Ensuring citizens' safety and support for law enforcement officers should be the session's most important priority. However, some members may prioritize Second Amendment rights.

Legislators should agree that mass shootings can occur nearly anywhere. They can learn more in that respect in the May 23 issue of The New York Times Magazine in a piece titled "What Can't Be Unseen."

The subject is the 2014 pre-Christmas shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, that killed 20 first grade children and six staff members.

It focuses on state crime-scene detectives Art Walkley, Jeff Covello and Karoline Keith, who took photographs, measured the scenes in classrooms and conducted the "meticulous reconstruction" of the carnage.

Here's how writer Jay Kirk described Walkley, "the death guy," after he emerged from the school:

"He had seen everything imaginable and a good deal of the unimaginable. And yet somehow he managed to stay one step ahead of the crowd of ghosts that were always following from one death scene investigation to the next. By the look of [his face] in the parking lot of [the school], the ghosts had caught up all at once."

The detective team was tasked with giving Attorney General Eric Holder "an abbreviated glimpse of the 1,495 photographs taken by Art Walkley over the past week: an uncensored, unredacted view of what they had faced when they first entered the school."

In that briefing there was a mournful reminder of the parents' losses:

"In the conference room, across from Classroom 8, were 26 [little] boxes containing each victim's personal belongings," Kirk noted. "An old-timer from the [office,] Ran Insalaco, came in to help. ... It had fallen to him to empty the 20 lunchboxes. His advice to his small crew: Don't read the notes. He had already made that mistake when one fluttered out.

"Thank God it's Friday. Love, Mommy.

"And then the weapon:

"By a cluster of desks was the Bushmaster. Its barrel and muzzle brake were coated in a film of white powder. A less experienced observer might have thought that it was concrete dust from bullets hitting the walls. But Dan [Sliby, an investigator], was sure, from his time in the Marines, that the chalky residue was baked evaporated blood."

There was much more to the article, including a paragraph about Classroom 8, where before the briefing for Holder, the three investigators had stood "staring into the tiny bathroom. Where the children were packed in so tightly that the [classroom] inward-hinged door could not be shut all the way. Where Art, who had seen what he had thought must have been every reconfiguration of the human body, did not even understand what he was looking at."

The intent here is not to shock the conscience of readers with the morbidity of Sandy Hook. Instead, as the shooting at The Covenant School in Nashville demonstrated, it is foolish to think Tennessee will somehow be spared a worse shooting.

There are two pertinent additions to this account.

One is that while many churches celebrate "Sanctity of Life Sunday" every January, we should acknowledge that "sanctity of life" does not apply just to unborn babies.

The other is that readers can learn a lot about the weapon of choice for many mass shooters by Googling "What does an AR-15 do to a human body? Washington Post." It answers the question with data about a first grade victim at Sandy Hook Elementary and a Florida teenager at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. Be prepared.

Michael Loftin is a former editorial page editor at The Chattanooga Times.