WASHINGTON - Police shot dead a man wielding an ax, a replica handgun 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.
The man, who police identified as 29-year-old Vincente David Montano, also wore a backpack that was strapped to the front of his body and wore a surgical mask, perhaps to protect himself from the chemical spray.
It later transpired that he was carrying an airsoft pellet gun, not a real gun, although police did not know that at the time.
The backpack, it turned out, contained what Nashville police chief Steve Anderson called "a device configured to look like an explosive. It was not."
A second backpack left at the scene was also deemed not threatening, Anderson said.
The man 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.
Police said Montano had been arrested on an assault charge in 2004 and had been committed for mental health care on four occasions, according to the Tennessean newspaper.
He was reported as a missing person on Monday, the newspaper said, citing 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 ax 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 nearby hospitals and the area was later deemed safe.
'Could have been 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 - prior to the police announcement that the gun was a replica - said the outcome Wednesday could have been much more serious.
"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 in the United States, 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.