I made my first post-interview visit to Hazard Community College, a place where I would teach English for five years, on a Saturday in August, 1980. The building was closed, of course. But I noticed a couple of cars circling so I stopped one and asked for information.
The kids inside laughed at me. They were just cruising.
Hazard Community College's parking lot served as a kind of Sunset Strip for teenagers in 1980.
That same parking lot hit the front pages last week, but not for the innocent pastime of cruising.
Three people, including a 12-year-old girl, were shot down. The young man arrested said that he had "snapped." He had gone to return his two-year-old to the child's mother, one of the victims. He had bought the gun he used about five hours before the shooting.
Guns and Eastern Kentucky: This tragedy just leaps out to embrace the stereotype. But is it fair?
About 35 years ago, I had a colleague/friend who went to meet her estranged husband in a park in Brooklyn. She thought the open setting would be safer. She brought one of their sons with her. Her husband shot the boy, his wife and then himself.
I guess he snapped.
So these things can happen anywhere. Yet that's not the whole story. New York State's gun death rate is about 5.1 per 100,000. Kentucky's, at 13.1, is almost three times New York's. I don't know what Eastern Kentucky's gun death rate is, but I suspect it's higher.
Why? When I lived there, the old lady next door to me in the country had a big pistol, but she was a sweet lady who smiled widely when she saw me. The fellow who sold me liquor — Perry was the only wet county around — had a pistol openly strapped to his hip, but he couldn't have been friendlier. The teenagers I stopped in Hazard Community College's parking lot probably had guns in the car, but they weren't threatening.
The people I knew in Eastern Kentucky weren't some stereotypical gun-toting yahoos. They were friendly and often sweet, men and women. I sometimes wondered if I was the only person living out in the county without a gun, but I never really worried about my safety or that of my young family.
I certainly couldn't have said the same when I lived in Manhattan in the l970s. In Manhattan, I once literally had a gun put to my head as I was ordered to open a safe. Yet Manhattan is now one of the safest cities in the country. And Hazard? Well, not so much.
Too big a question for me to attempt, but here's one stab at an answer. The young man who bought that gun five hours before his tense visitation exchange may or may not have intended to use it. That's for the courts to decide. But he did, I venture, buy into a Kentucky, and certainly an Eastern Kentucky, concept: that guns are a part of the solution to any trouble.
My old lady neighbor and the liquor store guy would say that guns were just part of their security. But when that security is everyone's security, it somehow makes us all less safe.
The country is debating gun control again. I'm a bit on the fence. I realized back in the 1980s that the attitude towards guns was as much geographical as philosophical. There's a great urban/rural divide and for good reasons. I do believe new controls on assault weapons and types of ammunition, as well as better background checks, are sensible and would help.
Fewer people would die if we enacted new rules. But I don't think they will get to the heart of the problem.
The heart of the problem lies with that idea that guns are a part of the solution. They almost never are. If we changed our hearts and our minds about that idea, many, many fewer people would be killed.
I bet that young man wishes now that he hadn't had his "solution" handy when he snapped. I know that the grieving relatives of the victims certainly do.
Joseph Anthony, a college professor in Lexington, is author of Peril, Kentucky and Pickering's Mountain, both set in Eastern Kentucky.