WASHINGTON - Police shot dead a gunman wearing a surgical mask and wielding a hatchet and pepper spray at a movie theater near Nashville on Wednesday, in terrifying echoes of two previous cinema shootings.
With only the attacker killed and three others slightly hurt, authorities said the outcome could have been much worse, hailing the rapid response of police who were at the theater in mere minutes, potentially saving dozens of lives.
The gunman, a 29-year-old unnamed local white man, also wore a backpack that was strapped to the front of his body.
"He had two backpacks. The one that remained on his person had what you might term as hoax device. It was a device configured to look like an explosive. It was not," Nashville police chief Steve Anderson told reporters.
A second backpack left at the scene was also deemed not threatening, Anderson said.
The shooter - who police originally said was 51 - entered the theater, where "Mad Max: Fury Road" was playing, and fired pepper spray at viewers before an officer burst in through the projection room, followed by a SWAT team.
The police officer shot at the man, who took aim back before fleeing through a back door of the cinema, where he ran into several more officers.
"He was shot, fatally wounded, and has been pronounced deceased at the scene," said Nashville police spokesman Don Aaron.
The mask worn by the shooter may have been used to protect him from the chemical spray, according to Aaron.
A shaken witness who was reportedly struck with pepper spray along with his daughter thanked police for saving their lives.
"I'm very, very grateful that no one else got injured here today, other than the person who perpetrated this," he said, without providing his name.
"I would ask anyone to pray for his family because he obviously has some mental problems or something else."
A 58-year-old man sustained "superficial" injuries to his shoulder and arm from the hatchet and was also hit with the pepper spray, said 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 and the area was later deemed safe.
'Could have been a lot worse'
Police received a call about a shooting at the Hickory 8 theater in Antioch, Tennessee, about 12 miles (19 kilometers) outside Nashville, at around 1.13 pm.
Officers were at a nearby crash scene and were able to race to the cinema in two minutes, Aaron said.
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 are reminiscent of the July 20, 2012 "Batman" massacre in which a shooter in Colorado opened fire on a screening of the "Dark Knight Rises," killing 12 and harming 70 more.
Nashville authorities said the outcome of Wednesday's theater shooting could have been much worse.
"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.
Nashville Mayor Karl Dean also hailed police for their quick response.
"I'm relieved that no one else was killed, and again, I thank the police for that," he said in a statement.
Local Uber driver Eric Vale, 32, told The Tennessean newspaper he was dropping off a passenger at the theater when he came across a scene of "utter chaos." "I just couldn't believe this was happening again," he told the newspaper.
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.