The teenagers in rural Kentucky decided they were fed up after a 15-year-old with a handgun turned their high school into another killing ground, murdering two classmates. Like so many other students, they wrote speeches and op-ed essays calling for gun control, they painted posters and they marched on their state Capitol. The blush of activism made them feel empowered, even a little invincible.
Then came the backlash.
It started with sideways looks and laughter from other students in the hallways, they said. Friends deleted them from group chats and stopped inviting them over. On social media, people called the teenage activists “retards” and “spoiled brats,” and said they should have been the ones to die during a shooting in Marshall County High School’s student commons four months ago.
In a more liberal city like Parkland, Florida, or at a rally in Washington, these students might have been celebrated as young leaders. But in rural, conservative parts of the country where farm fields crackle with target practice and children grow up turkey hunting with their parents, the new wave of student activism clashes with bedrock support for gun rights.
Speaking out in a place like Marshall County carries a price — measured in frayed friendships, arguments with parents and animosity within the same walls where classmates were gunned down.
The gulf between liberal and conservative America’s responses to mass shootings was on display again in Santa Fe, Texas, population 13,000, after 10 people were killed at the high school there on Friday. Republican leaders expressed no desire to pass gun restrictions. Many residents and students agreed with them, saying that gun control would not stop the bloodshed at America’s schools.
“If we had more guns on campus with more teachers armed, we’d be a lot safer,” said Layton Kelly, 17, a student who hid in a night-black classroom next to the scene of the shooting in Santa Fe.
That view resonates across rural Kentucky, where state lawmakers did not pass any new gun restrictions after the Marshall County shooting.
Most of the debate, both here in Benton, the hamlet that is home to the county high school, and at the state Capitol in Frankfort, has been focused on how to make schools more secure and how to detect potentially dangerous students. The school district in Marshall County has hired more armed officers and locked many of the high school’s 86 doors. Every morning, teachers and staff members search students’ backpacks and wand them with metal detectors.
The question of guns stayed largely on the sidelines.
“I don’t think the Second Amendment is the issue,” said Kevin Neal, Marshall County’s judge/executive. “If somebody gets it in their head they’re going to kill, they’re going to do it.”
Neal, a hulking former Marine, is a staunch gun rights supporter who said he carried a pistol on his side as he finished his lunch at JoJo’s Café. He said that many adults thought the student protesters were simply “marching to march.” Some parents said the students were being goaded by anti-gun groups outside Marshall County and were just seeking attention.
“They want to show, ‘Look at me, look at me,’” said P.J. Thomason, whose son Case was wounded in the shooting. “Everyone that owns a gun is wrong — that’s what they teach them nowadays.”
Thomason said that Case survived that day because he is a competitive pistol and rifle shooter who recognized the sound of gunshots in the student commons and instantly knew to run. Case was struck in the hip, but recovered quickly and is shooting again.
“The reason he’s alive is because of a gun,” Thomason said.
The Marshall County students who decided to speak out for gun control said they understood the consequences of bucking the views of many of their parents, friends and neighbors on an issue as personal and emotional as guns.
“We knew we were going to get backlash,” said Cloi Henke, 15, who was in a small group of students who participated in a local March for Our Lives rally one rainy day this spring.
“I just didn’t think it would be so forward,” said her 15-year-old friend Lily Dunn. “When people started talking about me, it knocked me down a few pegs.”
It was just after school one afternoon, and Cloi, Lily and their friends — all freshmen — were squeezed into a booth at the Benton Dairy Queen. Since the shooting at Marshall, they cocoon together often, in their spot in the student commons or on a friend’s willow-shaded back porch, to support each other and strategize about their tiny slice of the gun control movement.
“Almost no one agrees with us,” said Hailey Case, 16. That includes her father, who argued with Hailey after listening to her practice a speech she delivered at the local March for Our Lives rally.
One girl threatened to fight them after they held a gun control rally, they said. Letters and commenters in local media said the students were too young to know anything.
Cloi said she had been at a friend’s house one afternoon when her friend’s father pulled out his AR-15 to show her “what you guys are trying to ban.”
“It was kind of scary,” Cloi said.
Lily, sitting next to her, said a teacher had confronted her when she came to class wearing a T-shirt in the school’s orange and blue colors, showing a constellation of dots for every school in Kentucky that had been affected by a shooting.
Their own dot came on Jan. 23. According to police and prosecutors, Gabriel Parker, a 15-year-old student at Marshall County High, opened fire on a group of students with his stepfather’s handgun as a kind of twisted social experiment, to see how people would react. Parker was arrested after he slipped out of the school among a group of students fleeing the carnage, and has been charged as an adult in the attack.
Across the country, about 60 percent of rural households own a gun — double the rate of city households — and many Marshall County students said that before the shooting they had barely thought about the gun debate. They hunted and shot air rifles at camp on Kentucky Lake, and their fathers kept handguns for protection.
Afterward, though, the gulf between their views and their parents’ became impossible to ignore.
Mary Cox, 18, a senior who is involved in theater and captain of her speech team, got into arguments with her father when he tried to buy her a compact handgun to take with her to college. One day, she said, when her father was driving her home from a rehearsal, he pressed her on her support for banning AR-15s. If she was being attacked, wouldn’t she want someone with an AR-15 to come help?
“We couldn’t be more opposite in what we believe,” her father, Ezra, said in an interview. Still, he said, he and his wife had encouraged Mary to stay true to her beliefs.
One evening, three freshman friends who spoke at a gun control rally drove through town on their way to dinner, gliding past “Marshall Strong” signs on the Arby’s and the Lake Chem Credit Union. Four months after the shooting, reminders linger everywhere. Blue-and-orange lawn signs poke up from drainage ditches. Bible verses about faith and healing are still painted onto the windows of antique shops and insurance agencies downtown.
“I don’t want to see it anymore,” Lela Free said, staring out from a back seat.
Sitting in front in the passenger seat, Korbin Brandon, 16, thought about how his life had changed since 7:55 a.m. on that day in January.
Korbin, a freshman who speaks like a cross between Encyclopedia Brown and Alex Keaton, the conservative teenager from “Family Ties,” had always thought of himself a Second Amendment supporter and sportsman. He had fired a high-powered rifle when he was 8 years old.
But on Jan. 23, he was turned to face the glass walls that overlook the student commons when his classmates were being cut down.
“I saw some stuff” is how he puts it.
Though he still calls himself a conservative, Korbin decided to join the students who were organizing speeches and rallies focused on safety and gun control. When he returned to class after giving a speech that confronted the National Rifle Association, one friend yelled at him; others took a group photo without him; and a deacon at his church warned him that he sounded like a Democrat.
“They said I’d betrayed them,” Korbin said of his friends. “I’d turned my back on the good way, the sportsman’s way. I faced a lot of ridicule.”
He was surprised at the backlash, because he does not support banning guns or accessories. But he said they should perhaps be harder to buy.
He has since tried to patch up those strained relationships, and quoted a Bible verse about avoiding foolish controversies to rebut one person who criticized him. He shrugged off the effects on him. So many other people in his hometown had suffered deeply from that terrible January day.
“There’s other people that need to be taken care of,” he said.