NASHVILLE, Tennessee—After allegedly opening fire in a Waffle House early Sunday morning, Travis Reinking’s AR-15 was taken from him for the second time in less than a year.
Naked except for a jacket and the assault rifle police say he’d just used to shoot six people, Reinking paused—to reload, or perhaps, because the gun had jammed—and that’s when James Shaw Jr. saw an opportunity to end the massacre. He charged Reinking, wrestled the gun away from him, and threw it over the counter. Reinking fled the scene and remains at large.
At a press conference Sunday afternoon, where Shaw, a 29-year-old Nashville native, was hailed as a hero, he dismissed the hero talk about the scenario he’d found himself in.
“I was completely doing it just to save myself. Now, me doing that, I did save other people. But I don’t want people to think that I was the Terminator or Superman or anybody like that. It was just, I figured, if I was going to die he was going to have to work for it.”
Reinking, 29, is a native of Morton, Illinois, who authorities said is believed to have moved to Nashville in the fall of 2017. Months earlier, he was arrested by the U.S. Secret Service for being in a restricted area near the White House. Soon after, he was interviewed by the FBI and at their request, Tazewell County, Illinois, authorities revoked his firearms license and seized four guns, including the AR-15 used in Sunday’s shooting.
The Metro Nashville Police Department said Sunday afternoon that it had “received information that guns were returned to Reinking’s father, who has acknowledged giving them back to his son.”
It was 3:19 a.m. Sunday morning when Reinking pulled up to the Waffle House in a pickup truck and sat inside the vehicle for several minutes, according to police. He got out and fired the AR-15 at two men who were standing outside the restaurant, killing them both, police said. He went inside and continued firing, hitting at least four more people, killing two of them, according to authorities.
Police have identified the four victims who were killed as Taurean C. Sanderlin, 29; Joe R. Perez, 20; DeEbony Groves, 21; and Akilah DaSilva, 23.
Shaw had initially run to the restroom area to dodge the gunfire but when Reinking paused, Shaw said, he saw his opportunity and he took it.
He charged at Reinking, grabbing the barrel of the gun which was so hot it burned his hand. Once he wrestled the gun away, he said, he tossed it over the counter and forced Reinking outside the restaurant.
“He was kind of cussing when we was wrestling around with the gun and when I finally got the gun from him and threw it, when we was outside he was doing a bunch of cussing like I was in the wrong trying to save my life,” Shaw said.
A father to a 4-year-old daughter, Shaw said he knew he had it in him to overpower the gunman.
“I haven’t had any specific combat training. I just fight my daughter every night so I can put her to bed,” he said.
After he was treated at the hospital for his injuries and released, Shaw went home, changed his clothes and went to church with his family.
“I don’t want this to be the focal point of my life,” he said. “I know I’m gonna be seen by a lot of people because of all of the different media outlets and stuff but I don’t want this to be a major moment in my life even though I know it’s gonna be. I went to church to get past it.”
Born and raised in Nashville, Shaw attended Hunters Lane High School and Tennessee State University, a historically black university in the city. Crystal deGregory was one of Shaw’s professors at TSU.
“Even on a campus as large as Tennessee State University, Shaw was the kind of student that a teacher is unlikely to forget,” she told The Daily Beast. “An eternal optimist, if his ever-present smile didn’t win you over, his affable nature was certain to do so.
“Shaw’s bravado was that of ‘man’s man,’ so it’s likely that the wouldn’t want me to say this, but he’s always been a good, big-hearted kid,” she added. “I’m just grateful that due to his courage, the world now knows he’s a great man!”
Shaw’s friend, Brennan McCurry, who was in the restaurant with him at the time of the shooting, chuckled at Shaw’s idea that he’s not a hero.
“He’s a hero in my book,” McCurry told The Tennessean. “I mean, you don’t know right? When I walked out the bathroom I actually kicked the clip on accident. So there’s no idea how many more he had. You don’t know that. So if he gets the chance to reload that gun, I might not be standing here, he might not be standing there. So, I appreciate him, 100 percent.”
After the shooting, police say they believe Reinking went to his apartment nearby to put on pants before fleeing again. A witness reported spotting a man matching Reinking’s description near the woods behind the apartment complex.
The motive for the shooting remains unclear, but Metro Nashville Police Chief Steve Anderson said Reinking may have “mental issues.” Before his arrest at the White House last July, Reinking allegedly threatened someone in Illinois with an AR-15 before going to a public pool and exposing himself. A year earlier, Reinking was taken to an Illinois hospital for evaluation after he told law enforcement that he thought Taylor Swift was hacking his phone, according to police records obtained by the Peoria Journal Star.
Whatever the reason Reinking opened fire, the effect was all the same, according to Nashville’s mayor.
“Let’s be honest about what happened,” David Briley wrote on Twitter. “The citizens of Nashville were terrorized last night by a man with an AR15. Enough is enough.”