Washington: Police shot dead a 51-year-old gunman wearing a surgical mask and wielding a hatchet at a movie theater near Nashville on Wednesday, in terrifying echoes of two previous cinema shootings.
Apart from the attacker, a local white man, nobody else was shot but authorities said they found suspicious material in one of two backpacks at the scene, according to police, hailing the actions of an officer who rushed to the cinema to foil the gunman.
Three people were hurt when the suspect unleashed pepper spray in the auditorium. One of the injured was also struck with the hatchet.
"The hazardous devices unit has examined the backpack that the suspect was wearing, they are not comfortable with what they are seeing. So in a short amount of time, that backpack will be detonated by the bomb squad," Nashville police spokesman Don Aaron told reporters.
The shooter apparently entered the theater, where "Mad Max" was playing, and fired pepper spray at viewers before an officer entered through the projection room and shot him dead.
"The suspect raised his weapon toward that officer, pulled the trigger. That officer then fired on the suspect, and then backed away from the theater," Aaron said, adding that a SWAT team entered soon after.
"He was shot, fatally wounded, and has been pronounced deceased at the scene."
The suspect was wearing a surgical mask and was brandishing a hatchet, in addition to a backpack that was strapped to the front of his body.
"The mask may have been to try to negate the effects of the chemical spray he brought with him," Aaron said. Police were called to the Hickory 8 theater in Antioch, Tennessee, about 12 miles (19 kilometers) outside of Nashville, at around 1:13 pm, where an estimated 20 people were watching the film, according to Aaron.
A 58-year-old man sustained "superficial" injuries to his shoulder and arm from the hatchet and was also hit with pepper spray, according to Nashville Fire Department spokesman Brian Haas.
Two women, aged 17 and 53, were hit in the face with the spray, but no one else was being transferred to area hospitals.
Officers were at the scene of a nearby crash and so were able to rush to the cinema within two minutes, potentially saving dozens of lives.
"We are very grateful we only have three pepper spray-exposure cases to treat at this point. This could have been a lot worse," Haas said.
"At this point we are going to stay on scene as long as it takes until the police deem it safe, the bomb squad has done what they need to do," he added.
The incident takes place less than two weeks after a gunman opened fire in a cinema in Lafayette, Louisiana killing two women and wounding nine others before taking his own life.
Both shootings are reminiscent of the July 20, 2012 "Batman" massacre, when gunman James Holmes opened fire during a showing of "The Dark Knight Rises" in Colorado, killing 12 and harming 70 more.
Recent mass shootings have reignited a debate about national gun laws, with President Barack Obama calling gun crime a crisis that "tears at the fabric of a community."
Efforts by US lawmakers to tighten gun control after a 2012 mass shooting in Newtown, Connecticut that killed 26 people, including 20 children, have stumbled in the face of an influential gun lobby.