A gunman wearing a ski mask stormed into a Nashville, Tennessee-area church on Sunday, shooting seven people before attacking a church usher who then confronted the man with a weapon and subdued him, Nashville police said.

The shooting - which left a 39-year-old woman dead - occurred shortly before noon at Burnette Chapel Church of Christ in Antioch, Tennessee, about 12 miles southeast of downtown Nashville. Police identified the alleged shooter as Emanuel Kidega Samson, 25, of Tennessee; police said he will be charged with murder and attempted murder.

Don Aaron, a spokesman for the Nashville Police Department, said Samson drove up to the church and shot and killed a woman who was standing near her vehicle in the parking lot. The gunman then entered the church through a rear door, shooting and wounding six people inside.

This undated photo provided by Metro Nashville Police Department shows Emanuel Kidega Samson. Photo / AP
This undated photo provided by Metro Nashville Police Department shows Emanuel Kidega Samson. Photo / AP

At some point during his rampage, the gunman also pistol-whipped a church usher, causing "significant injuries" to the man, Aaron said. The usher, 22-year-old Robert Engle, confronted the gunman, police said, and during a struggle, Samson was injured with a shot from his own gun. The usher then ran to his car and retrieved a handgun, police said.

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Aaron said the usher ensured the gunman did not make any more movements until officers arrived on the scene. "It would appear he was not expecting to encounter a brave individual like the church usher," Aaron said.

Nashville Police Chief Steve Anderson praised Engle for intervening: "We believe he is the hero today."

Police identified the deceased victim as Melanie Smith, 39, of Smyrna, Tennessee. The six surviving gunshot victims, all described as being between the ages of 60 and 83, are being treated at Nashville-area hospitals, as is the usher. Police said the shooter also was taken to a hospital to be treated for a gunshot wound.

Aaron said the gunman left his vehicle idling after he pulled up to the church, and he was wearing a "neoprene mask, best described as a ski mask." About 50 parishioners were inside the church at the time, police said.

Doug Ramey, 45, of Murfreesboro, Tennessee, said he met with Engle at Skyline Medical Center, where the usher was being treated for injuries including a separated shoulder. Ramey said Engle told him he sprang into action after hearing gunshots both inside and outside the church.

Police investigate the scene outside the Burnette Chapel Church of Christ after a deadly shooting. Photo / AP
Police investigate the scene outside the Burnette Chapel Church of Christ after a deadly shooting. Photo / AP

Engle told Ramey that he approached the shooter thinking he had his handgun on him, but he realized that he didn't and instead engaged in a hand-to-hand struggle instead. After Samson was shot in the struggle, Engle's father stood guard over him while Engle went to get his firearm from his vehicle. When he returned, Engle put his gun on Samson and held him down with his foot, Ramey said.

"Robert said the guy didn't say a word," Ramey said as he stood at the police line barrier at the church on Sunday afternoon, waiting for Engle's girlfriend, who remained with other parishioners as police continued to gather evidence. "He had a mask on the whole time."

In an interview with Nashville's ABC affiliate, a man who lives near the church said the gunman appeared to have targeted at least one of his victims.

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"He shot the lady in the back and then rolled her over and shot her in the face," Joe Love, the witness, said, referring to the victim who was found in the parking lot. In a separate interview aired by CNN, Love said he also saw the gunman "knock an elderly man out of his walker."

The FBI and Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms are assisting Nashville police in the investigation. Aaron said authorities are working on a motive for the shooting but are not ready to release it publicly.

Police tape lines the scene at the Burnette Chapel Church of Christ after a deadly shooting. Photo / AP
Police tape lines the scene at the Burnette Chapel Church of Christ after a deadly shooting. Photo / AP

"There are certain things that have come to our attention that are under investigation, but that remains to be announced," Aaron said.

A massive police presence remained on the scene at the Burnette Chapel on Sunday afternoon, with a police officer standing guard on Pin Hook Road a quarter mile from the church, turning away motorists.

The church is located in Antioch, a working-class neighbourhood and one of Nashville's most diverse. Located in a rural area in the very southwestern corner of Nashville's combined city-county boundary, the church also serves LaVergne in neighboring Rutherford County, where auto industry factories are among the region's largest employers.

On social media, the church has posted inclusive messages and photographs showing a congregation that reflects the diversity of the surrounding neighbourhood, which is majority white, but also includes sizable black, Hispanic, and foreign-born populations.

In a statement, Nashville Mayor Megan Barry said the shooting was a "terrible tragedy."

"My heart aches for the family and friends of the deceased as well as the wounded victims and their loved ones" Barry said. "My administration, especially Metro Nashville police, will continue to work with community members to stop crime before it starts, encourage peaceful conflict resolution and promote non-violence."