When then-candidate Barack Obama was still seeking the Democratic nomination back in 2008, one of his most notable gaffes of the primary campaign trail was an ill-worded assessment of blue-collar culture.
Speaking to a wealthy fundraiser crowd, Obama suggested that rural residents of Pennsylvania were bitter, and that they were inclined to “cling to guns or religion” as a result of economic frustration. The remark left a bitter taste in the mouth of rural America, whose support of Obama’s Democratic Party has continued to erode ever since.
I’ll be the first to say that the former President’s remarks seemed tone-deaf and perhaps even a bit reactionary, but I think he had a point. Even in a nation plagued by an epidemic of gun violence and school shootings, gun ownership remains deeply embedded, and sensitively so, within rural culture. And that makes it a whole lot more complicated for rural students and advocates who want to stop school shootings.
We Saw What Happened In Parkland. Well, We Aren’t Parkland.
After the horrific shooting at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, I was amazed by the rapid student responses that launched a nationwide movement for school safety. Charismatic students like Emma González and David Hogg have quickly become rising stars in the world of activism, making viral media appearances and organizing worldwide March For Our Lives demonstrations.
But student activism – especially around gun reform – doesn’t always have the same appeal in these parts of the country, and rural students haven’t had quite as much luck.
Take, for example, Kentucky’s own Marshall County, where a school shooting in January claimed the lives of two students. In the wake of movements like #NeverAgain, rural areas like Marshall are hesitant with the idea of gun reform, and it doesn’t seem likely that will change anytime soon.
The Chicago Tribune recently interviewed Jeff Dysinger, a Marshall County parent whose daughter Hannah survived two bullets in the shooting. Dysinger, a veteran who indicated his strong support for gun rights, said “I think everybody in rural Kentucky, we’re all brought up with guns, I mean we’ve all been around guns our entire life. Kids in cities like (Parkland, Florida) don’t get that.”
After the shooting in Florida, Dysinger posted a photo of himself with an assault rifle on Facebook. “Please stop talking about AR-15s. Yes, my daughter was shot, yes I’m angry. But I can tell you it’s not a gun thing,” the post said.
Kevin Neal, Marshall County’s judge/executive, agreed with that sentiment in a recent interview with The New York Times. “I don’t think the Second Amendment is the issue. If somebody gets it in their head they’re going to kill, they’re going to do it.”
This seems to be the conventional wisdom in rural areas, where according to a recent Pew Research survey, almost half (46%) of rural Americans own a gun. (Three-quarters of that group own more than one.)
That’s a staunch contrast from what we see in urban America, where only 19% of Americans own guns. But not only is there a gap in ownership, there are some philosophical differences as well: when it comes to gun rights versus gun control, a strong majority (63%) of rural Americans like Neal and Dysinger say that gun rights should take precedence.
So instead, the conversation has rested mostly on securing the school and identifying potential dangers. Marshall County Schools have hired more school resource officers, and the high school has begun searching students’ backpacks and using metal detectors as students arrive each morning.
In other words, gun reform is off the table in rural areas. But that hasn’t stopped students from trying.
One student, Keaton Connor, helped lead a Parkland-inspired protest at the Kentucky State Capitol in Frankfort. “This is a gun-heavy area, and people get very defensive whenever people start talking about regulating that,” Connor said in a recent interview. “They don’t understand. I feel like if they understood what gun control meant, they would be more likely to get on board with it.”
Students like Connor have been vocal about school safety, but haven’t received the same levels of national attention as Parkland’s Emma González or David Hogg. In fact, some of the attention that Marshall students have received hasn’t been so positive at all.
On local media Facebook accounts, adults have posted things like “Another rich, spoiled brat trying to get attention,” and “Liberal brainwashed kids who are brainwashed by your liberal teachers.”
I’m not quite sure what to make of that last one.
And then I read this one comment, which made me have to get off the keyboard for a while. It simply read, “Why weren’t you shot?”
It is heartening, at least, that the school district has encouraged students to come forward and report any backlash like this that they might receive. The fact that any of this is happening at all – the shootings, the backlash from adults, you name it – should give us pause.
In the end, this isn’t an easy battle to pick. It certainly has not been easy for Parkland’s #NeverAgain kids, but the hardline pro-gun background of rural America adds another challenge for courageous Kentucky kids who care about protecting schools.
Like Jeff Dysinger’s daughter, Hannah, who was shot twice in the Marshall County shooting. In an op-ed she wrote for The Courier Journal, Hannah argues that there’s no one single cause behind school shootings. “It is a mix of gun accessibility, parenting, today’s society and a lack of safety measures in every school that would be needed to make students feel safe and secure.”
I’m no expert, and I don’t pretend to have a foolproof solution to school shootings. But I think Hannah might be onto something, and it all begins with having a conversation.
Photo from Flickr, CC-Licensed.