Gun violence’s distant echo

After school shootings, a teenager challenges the gun culture in her conservative Wyoming town
At home in Gillette, Wyo., Moriah Engdahl, 16, tells her father, Alan Engdahl, about her speech to the Campbell County school board last month in which she argued against arming the district's teachers. Moriah is one of the few vocal supporters of gun control in Gillette; many residents, like her father, see guns as an essential part of life.
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Photos by Jabin Botsford

Alan Engdahl was driving home after an overnight shift in the oil field when his truck picked up a scratchy radio signal out of Gillette. It was the first sign of civilization since he had disappeared the afternoon before down 50 miles of wind-whipped prairie and rutted gravel roads, so Alan and his co-worker listened to the disc jockey tick through community news. Cattle prices were flat. T&T Guns had antique rifles on special. The Cowboy Draw lotto was up to $1 million. “And here’s something you don’t hear every day,” the radio host said. “We apparently have a liberal gun protest happening right here in Gillette.”

Alan had rarely heard anything described as liberal in northeast Wyoming, and now he listened as the disc jockey explained how 10 Campbell County High School students had marched downtown the previous afternoon to demand tighter gun laws. They said they wanted mandatory background checks on all gun purchases. They said they wanted to build a gun-control movement in solidarity with survivors of a shooting in Parkland, Fla., and tens of thousands of other teenagers protesting across the country. But this was Wyoming, where the high school yearbook devoted four pages to “Hunting: No Greater Sport,” and a local club funded college scholarships by raffling off AR-15s. The protesters had been met downtown with middle fingers and the warning of suspensions.

At home in Gillette, Wyo., Moriah Engdahl, 16, tells her father, Alan Engdahl, about her speech to the Campbell County school board last month in which she argued against arming the district's teachers. Moriah is one of the few vocal supporters of gun control in Gillette; many residents, like her father, see guns as an essential part of life.

“They should be expelled,” Alan remembered joking to his co-worker, once the radio switched back to classic rock and they turned onto the highway toward Gillette. “That bleeding-heart nonsense might fly in New York or D.C., but in Wyoming? That’s treason.”

If America had in fact begun to reconsider its relationship with guns after two decades of escalating mass shootings, then a crucial test was now arriving in the rural West, where that relationship has long been inseparable. Wyoming has more guns per capita than any other state, with sales rising in each of the past five years, and more than 80 percent of adults in Campbell County have firearms in their homes. Alan once owned more than 250 — an entire storage unit of rifles, handguns and antiques — until he committed a drug felony in 2006 and lost his legal right to own guns. A popular state slogan remained taped to one of his trucks: “Welcome to Wyoming: Consider Everyone Armed.”

He parked at a ramshackle house on the outskirts of town, where the newspaper waited at the kitchen table. On the front page he noticed a story about the gun protest, the first that anyone could remember in Gillette. “A Walkout for Change,” the headline read. Above that was a picture of several students marching, and there in the midst of them, holding a protest sign, was his 16-year-old daughter, Moriah..

Alan and Moriah Engdahl's home on the outskirts of Gillette is often rattled by underground blasts from a nearby coal mine. The oil and coal industries are vital to the town's economy.
Alan Engdahl walks with another of his daughters, Rebecca Engdahl, 19, as he loads his truck and prepares to leave for two weeks last month to work on an oil rig.
A display at Campbell County High School in Gillette includes a newspaper clipping about students' walkout for gun control. Moriah is in the center of the photo, holding up a sign.
TOP: Alan and Moriah Engdahl's home on the outskirts of Gillette is often rattled by underground blasts from a nearby coal mine. The oil and coal industries are vital to the town's economy. ABOVE LEFT: Alan Engdahl walks with another of his daughters, Rebecca Engdahl, 19, as he loads his truck and prepares to leave for two weeks last month to work on an oil rig. ABOVE RIGHT: A display at Campbell County High School in Gillette includes a newspaper clipping about students' walkout for gun control. Moriah is in the center of the photo, holding up a sign.

Now a week later, that sign was in his house, tucked into the closet of a bedroom where Moriah had been spending much of her time, with her door closed, since the protest. In the days since the march, the “Campbell County Ten” had become the object of profane graffiti, the inspiration for a rival Freedom March and the favorite target of a new Instagram account, “Campbell County Students for America,” which shared memes comparing gun protesters to Hitler. For his part, Alan had considered grounding Moriah for skipping school but decided against it. “I’m pretty sure the rest of Wyoming is going to punish her for me,” he said, so instead he had chosen to needle Moriah at every opportunity, including now, when she came out from her bedroom and walked into the kitchen.

“Win any popularity contests at school today?” he asked her. She rolled her eyes and ignored him, so he tried again.

“Did you manage to get everyone’s guns yet?” he said.

“How many times do I have to tell you it’s not about that?” she said. “We’re just pushing for more safety, a little more control.”

“That’s a bad word,” Alan said. “First it’s gun control, then it’s confiscation. I don’t know where you learned any different.”

She was the youngest of his four daughters, each a bit more empowered than the last, and by the time Moriah turned 12 she had begun questioning her parents’ Christianity, and then started favoring abortion rights, and then calling herself a feminist, and then refusing to eat the pigs her family sometimes slaughtered for meat. “The mouthy, hard-headed one,” Alan called her, with some pride, because that was how he saw himself, too, even if they often disagreed. She advocated for gay rights in her high school, and he thought acceptance was “part of the problem, because that stuff is better off staying hidden.” She was dating a Mexican American boy named Jon, whom Alan liked but also occasionally referred to as “Mexican Juan.” She was a journalist at the high school newspaper. He thought that journalists were partially to blame for ruining America and that “the fake news wouldn’t give Trump a slap on the back if he saved two babies from a fire.”

But one thing they had rarely argued about was guns, at least until 17 people were killed at a Parkland, Fla., high school in February. Moriah occasionally went target shooting at the range on “ladies day” with her mother, who was remarried and living across town. Her mother’s freezer was filled with fresh venison from her latest October kill. Her father and his friends had sometimes fired off 1,500 rounds in a day of target shooting before he went to prison for distribution of methamphetamine.

Like her parents, Moriah had usually blamed Gillette’s high rates of gun violence not on firearms but on the character of the town itself. The coal and oil boomtown had sprung up amid the dust and antelope of northeast Wyoming, nearly doubling in size since the 1990s to about 32,000 people, many of whom worked to extract the natural resources below ground. The town suffered from high rates of transiency and wild economic swings, which contributed to one of the country’s highest suicide rates. “Gillette syndrome” was the term popularized by one psychologist, and it had become the favorite local explanation for all kinds of economic and emotional instability.

This is the Cowboy State. Point a gun at someone, and you’ll have 10 pointing right back at you, and that’s how we like it.
Alan Engdahl

After Parkland, though, Moriah began reading online about guns and became interested in research suggesting that guns are part of the mental health crisis, too. She read that suicides account for almost two-thirds of gun deaths, and that people are five times more likely to successfully commit suicide if they own or have access to a gun. Her cousin had killed himself with a hunting rifle in 2015. One of her classmates had brought a gun to school in his backpack a year later, sparking an evacuation before he shot and killed himself by the railroad tracks. And now, in the wake of the Parkland shooting, school districts across Wyoming were considering arming teachers with concealed firearms and abolishing gun-free zones.

“Why is the answer here always more guns?” Moriah asked her father now, as they sat together in the kitchen.

“It’s been 20 years since Columbine, and you’re still hiding under desks,” Alan said. “How’s that been working?”

“What if someone gets depressed at school, grabs a gun and pops off?” Moriah asked. “People are fragile.”

Moriah had sometimes suffered from what she considered her own version of Gillette syndrome, waves of anxiety that led her to visit a local hospital for help in 2016. She had decided that what she needed most was a fresh start, so she eventually moved out of her mother’s house and in with her father on the far edge of town.

Theirs was a single-story place wedged between a cow pasture and a coal mine, where underground dynamite blasts shook the walls a few times each week. A dartboard hung in the kitchen, and red plastic cups filled the cabinets. Her father styled himself as gruff and imposing, with a mangy beard, broad shoulders built by swinging a sledgehammer on the rig and a stomach rounded out by peppermint schnapps. But he was also a big-hearted savior of damaged cars and lost people, both of which populated his five acres. There was Luke, who had nowhere to live until Alan offered up his shed; and a drifter who called himself “Tennessee,” who had come to Wyoming looking for work but failed a background check; and Scotty, who spent his days trying to fix some of the 17 trucks surrounding the house and his nights sipping Budweiser on the couch. “Sweet-but-crazy uncles,” Moriah called them, because they were almost always following Alan’s lead, whether that meant watching old westerns on TV, firing darts across the sink or teasing Moriah from the living room.

“You know why I like guns, Moriah?” Tennessee said now. “Because otherwise we’d be under British rule.”

“It’s the foundation for this whole country,” Luke said.

“This is the Cowboy State,” Alan said. “Point a gun at someone, and you’ll have 10 pointing right back at you, and that’s how we like it.”

Moriah sat by the kitchen window and looked out at a nothingness that stretched as far as she could see. Gillette had no river, no lakes, no mountains and hardly any trees. Sometimes, out this window, she could watch the same jet trace across the sky for five minutes, reduced to slow motion by the vastness of the landscape, until Wyoming itself began to feel inescapable. Not long ago, Moriah told her teachers that she hoped to move away to New York and become the first person in her family to live outside Wyoming, but lately she thought that sounded laughably naive. She had never been on a plane, never traveled farther than Aberdeen, S.D.

She stood up and grabbed a dart out of her father’s hand.

“You’re all stuck in an old way of thinking,” she said. “You guys have no idea how many people are with us.”

Moriah Engdahl, center, and her classmates discuss a project in journalism class at Campbell County High School last month. Moriah writes for the school newspaper, even though her father takes a dim view of journalists.
One of Gillette's gun stores. Wyoming has more guns per capita than any other state, and more than 80 percent of adults in Campbell County have firearms in their homes.
A convenience store in Gillette sells shirts with pro-gun slogans. The high school yearbook devotes several pages to hunting, and a local club funded college scholarships by raffling off AR-15s.
TOP: Moriah Engdahl, center, and her classmates discuss a project in journalism class at Campbell County High School last month. ABOVE LEFT: One of Gillette's gun stores. Wyoming has more guns per capita than any other state, and more than 80 percent of adults in Campbell County have firearms in their homes. ABOVE RIGHT: A convenience store in Gillette sells shirts with pro-gun slogans.

The truth was that she didn’t exactly know, either, so later that week the Campbell County Ten scheduled a meeting after school for “anyone open to gun solutions.” Moriah met a few friends in the school parking lot, and they walked past the rows of pickup trucks toward an adjacent shopping center. They passed Mystix Vapes, the Armed Forces Career Center and Rod’s American Market, where the American flag out front had tiny handguns in place of white stars. They continued by a tattoo parlor advertising the upcoming Silent Sinners Gun Raffle and then crossed the street to Starbucks. Moriah set her backpack down at the biggest table and waited for everyone else to arrive.

Their original protest march had begun with 10 students but dropped quickly to nine, when an irate parent drove downtown and yanked her daughter into the car. In the days since, a few more students had dropped out of the group’s text-messaging chain after saying they wanted to focus on less-controversial issues, like remembering victims or discouraging bullying. Now the Starbucks table remained mostly empty. Moriah watched another former protester come into the coffee shop and walk by their table to sit with a few other friends out back.

“I guess she’s ignoring us,” Moriah said. “Let’s start with what we have.”

There were five of them in all, including one who opened the meeting by reminding everyone that she was not officially in the group and that her parents were trying to get her a job at a shooting range. “I’m just here to watch,” she said. That meant the Campbell County Ten was in fact down to Moriah and three others: a freshman wearing a Pink Floyd T-shirt; a senior who described herself as “fiercely, fiercely liberal”; and the outspoken editor of the school newspaper, who had come up with the idea to make signs and march to the courthouse.

We need to be completely anger-less, or else people will think we want to take away their guns and melt them into a statue of Obama.
Moriah Engdahl

“I want to change so many things about this town,” one of them said now. “We made up a few cheap signs at the Dollar Store, and you would think we declared war.”

“I hate guns and what they stand for,” another said. “Really, I do.”

A woman at a nearby table looked over. Moriah opened her laptop and adjusted her glasses. “Let’s stop venting and talk a little quieter,” she said. “What’s our next step?”

She tried to take notes as everyone spoke at once about starting a group Instagram account, or writing to Wyoming senators, or boycotting Walmart until it stopped selling rifles.

“It’s like there’s a gun addiction here,” one girl said.

“Even my dad has started calling me a gun-control libtard,” said another.

“Quieter. Please,” Moriah said again, because now the woman at the next table had set down her newspaper and was openly staring and scowling in their direction. Moriah leaned in and spoke just above a whisper. “We need to be completely anger-less, or else people will think we want to take away their guns and melt them into a statue of Obama. We’re not going to win a shouting contest. We need to stay on message and focus on one thing.”

Moriah suggested her preference for what that should be: keeping guns out of Campbell County High. The school board in another Wyoming county had just voted to arm its teachers with concealed handguns after a survey showed 74 percent of residents supported that idea. Campbell County’s school board had begun meeting with law enforcement to explore a similar possibility. The next school board meeting was just days away. Each meeting was open to public comments. “They really would have no choice but to listen to us,” Moriah said. But one girl couldn’t go to that meeting because she was rehearsing for the high school musical, and others said they also wanted to talk to the school board about bullying, suicide prevention and armed school guards.

“One message,” Moriah said again, but now a few other customers had begun to gawk at their table, and some of the girls stood up to pack their bags.

“Are we going to do this?” Moriah asked, and when there was no definitive answer, she started packing, too. She drove away from Starbucks, out of Gillette and up the dirt road toward her father’s house, where Alan was sitting with Luke and Tennessee on the couch and watching TV.

“Take everyone’s guns yet?” Alan asked again, without bothering to turn around, and something about his dismissiveness made her want to push back.

“We’re actually going to talk to the school board,” she said.

Alan turned to look at her. “You better make sure you know what you’re talking about,” he said. “I’m trying to look out for you here. If you go up there looking dumb, they will eat you alive.”

She rolled her eyes and walked to her room, but she also thought her father was right. If she showed up for the meeting with a small group of protesters, it would be perceived as an affront. What she wanted instead was an approach that offered her more subtlety and more control, so she sent a message to what was left of the Campbell County Ten.

“I’m sorry,” she said, “but I think this is something I should do by myself.”

After the school shooting in Parkland, Fla., in February, Moriah Engdahl began reading online about guns and mental health. Gillette, a place of economic instability, has one of the country's highest suicide rates.

She wanted to prepare by learning everything she could about guns, so a few days before the meeting she traveled across town to a house where four mounted animal heads were on display above the entryway. Moriah’s mother, Tracey, was inside talking about a future hunting trip. Her stepfather was downstairs at his custom-built reloading station, which was stocked with bullet casings and gunpowder.

“What is all of this?” Moriah asked him, pointing to shells and weight scales. “I don’t really understand much about gun stuff.”

“Yeah, I’m starting to see that,” her stepfather said, because he’d read about the protest and had the same reaction as just about everyone else.

She watched him work and began to ask questions about which bullets splintered upon impact and which ones mushroomed, and the differences between rifles with wood vs. synthetic stocks. She wanted to know whether people needed a special permit to buy guns in Wyoming. “No,” he said. She asked if Wyoming had specific limits on semiautomatic weapons or magazine sizes. “No,” he said again.

“So there really aren’t that many regulations?” she asked, and her stepfather stopped handling ammunition shells and looked at her.

“I don’t need a bunch of rules to tell me this is serious stuff,” he said. He picked up a tub of gunpowder and held it out toward her. “I mean, this right here is like having a bomb in the basement.”

Moriah took a step backward.

“Gun safety is about being able to handle your own business,” he said. “Like with hunting, I’m not a fan of taking the horns and leaving the meat, or just wounding an animal. There might not be a rule against it, but in my opinion it’s the wrong thing to do. I want a clean shot. I want to eat all of it. It’s about taking personal responsibility.”

“What if a person isn’t responsible?” Moriah asked.

He started to put away his gunpowder, meticulously arranging it on the shelves, and Moriah went upstairs to see her mother — the gun owner she trusted most of all. Tracey had taken women’s gun safety classes, studied self-defense and become a good target shooter. She was a natural athlete, built by CrossFit and hiking, and she had killed her first deer while pregnant and still managed to haul it out of a plowed field. A few months later in the delivery room, she and Alan saw the Columbine High School shooting unfold on TV and watched as SWAT teams waited outside throughout 40 minutes of gunfire before finally entering the school. “Can’t they do something faster?” she had wondered then.

Tracey had become an early-education teacher at a local preschool, where she and the staff underwent active-shooter response training to prepare for whatever might come through their doors. They would act quickly to secure the children. They would barricade all entry points. They would sing songs to help the children stay calm. They would break a window to evacuate. And if none of that worked, they would create noises to distract the shooter and then rush out to tackle him. Each year when they reviewed their plan, Tracey felt increasingly certain that what she would really want in that nightmare scenario was something she couldn’t have.

“Give me a gun,” she told Moriah. “Heck yeah. I’d want to shoot that sucker.”

“I can see that, but that’s you, and not everybody is so responsible,” Moriah said, because she had also read about several recent incidents when adults brought guns to school to protect students but endangered them instead: a teacher in California who accidently fired a round into the ceiling during a presentation on gun safety, injuring three students; a school resource officer in Pennsylvania who left his gun in the locker room, where it was found by a sixth-grader; a teacher in Georgia who barricaded himself in his classroom and fired a bullet out the window.

“Not everyone can be trusted,” Moriah said. “We’re safer with fewer guns, not more.”

“I can see your point,” Tracey said, and Moriah believed that if anyone in Wyoming was capable of changing views, it was her mother. She had recovered from a drug addiction early in life and become a Christian. She had gone from being intolerant of homosexuality to embracing a relative who had come out as gay.

“When I talk to the school board, will you come?” Moriah asked, and her mother said she would.

“I want to hear what you have to say,” Tracey said. “I know there’s some gray area, but you’re up against people who see black and white.”

Jon Acosta, 16, Moriah's boyfriend, talks with her at a Dairy Queen in Gillette after she spoke to the local school board last month. The district is exploring the possibility of arming teachers.
Moriah practices her speech at home. “I’m here to express my concerns about arming teachers,” she told school officials. “I believe allowing firearms in school is an irrational idea to introduce here.”
Moriah once told her teachers that she hoped to move to New York and become the first person in her family to live outside Wyoming. She has never traveled farther than South Dakota.
TOP LEFT: Jon Acosta, 16, Moriah's boyfriend, talks with her at a Dairy Queen in Gillette after she spoke to the local school board last month. The district is exploring the possibility of arming teachers. TOP RIGHT: Moriah practices her speech at home. “I’m here to express my concerns about arming teachers,” she told school officials. “I believe allowing firearms in school is an irrational idea to introduce here.” ABOVE: Moriah once told her teachers that she hoped to move to New York and become the first person in her family to live outside Wyoming.

She bought a new dress and borrowed her sister’s best lip gloss. She trimmed her speech to the recommended three-minute allotment, double-checked her statistics and practiced six times in the living room. Then she went to a nondescript county building and waited her turn to speak, until the chairwoman called her up to a seat at the center of the room.

“Thank you for your time, trusted board members,” Moriah said. She smiled up at 12 school administrators seated on an elevated platform and then began to read from the speech that was now shaking in her hands.

“I’m here to express my concerns about arming teachers,” she said. “I believe allowing firearms in school is an irrational idea to introduce here.”

To her surprise, no one said anything, so she continued. She told the school board that she was worried about the mental health epidemic in Gillette and that some school employees inevitably suffered from those problems, too. She said that teachers were not trained for shootouts and that even armed school security guards had failed to stop shootings, including the one in Parkland.

“Adding more guns to the equation will not be a universal solution,” she said, and now her three minutes were almost up. She asked the board members to “please consider” and “think deeply” and “search for new ways,” and then she concluded by smiling and thanking them again.

The chairwoman grabbed her microphone and told Moriah that she wanted to “set her mind at ease.” She said the district was looking into many ways to ensure student safety, including bulletproof glass, door-jamming devices and, possibly, guns. “It will be a long and careful process,” she said, and then she moved on to the next speaker, who talked about incorporating technology into classrooms. Moriah retreated to the back of the room near her mother, her boyfriend and two of her sisters as the school board rolled through its agenda, from staffing issues to the science curriculum to the budget, until it began to feel to Moriah as if her speech had all but evaporated.

“You did great,” her mother said, once they left. “Measured and respectful.”

“But did they get it?” Moriah asked. “I feel like maybe they heard but didn’t exactly listen.”

She hugged her mother goodbye and went back to her father’s house, where everyone was sitting in the kitchen. Her dad was back from another shift in the oil field. Luke was throwing darts, and Tennessee was watching a western on TV. “How’d the gun controlling go?” Alan asked, and Moriah started to tell him about the meeting until he cut in.

“I guess it really doesn’t matter if they have guns or not,” Alan said. “Either way, if one of these shootings happened in Wyoming, you’d have parents breaking through the windows with more guns than you’d ever seen.”

“Okay,” she said. “But that’s my point. I’m trying to —”

“If you got a gun, then just bring it,” Tennessee interrupted. “I don’t see why we need much regulation myself.”

“They are trying to push toward confiscation,” Luke said.

“First it’s control,” Alan said.

Moriah sat there as they talked over and around her, circling the same points. On the other side of the country, Parkland survivors had begun planning ever-bigger marches and protests — the beginning of what they called a “generational movement.” But here it was just Moriah and a protest that went silent as she sat at the table and waited for her opening to interject. She was trying to be patient. She was trying to compromise. She was treading lightly and remaining anger-less until she couldn’t do it anymore.

“Hey! I’m trying to say something,” she said.

Moriah Engdahl waits to address the school board last month. Afterward, her mother congratulated her on her speech, but the teenager had doubts: “Did they get it? I feel like maybe they heard but didn’t exactly listen.” (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
Credits: Story by Eli Saslow. Photos by Jabin Botsford. Designed by Clare Ramirez. Photo Editing by Thomas Simonetti.