A week after the Parkland, Fla., school shooting, the note was found scrawled on our middle school’s bathroom wall: I’m gonna shoot up the school on 2-21-18.
That was the first threat. Within 24 hours, the elementary, middle and high schools in my tiny, rural Kentucky town had all received written warnings of gun violence, and all three schools, approximately 3,700 students, were placed on “soft lockdown” (told to shelter in place) while the sheriff’s office and Kentucky State Police investigated.
I live in Anderson County, Kentucky. Donald Trump won here in 2016 with 72.2 percent of the vote. We have 38 Christian-based churches to serve a population of 22,000, and lots of talk about God-given Second Amendment rights. When I moved here in 2014, the first question I was often asked was, “Where do you go to church?” Neighbors joked that the elderly man who previously owned my house, a fun-loving, retired military officer, kept a cache of guns in the closets and under the couch cushions. For security.
This is both Trump country and single-issue voter country. People here vote on guns, and people vote on abortion. Every other issue, every other considerable nuance, is nothing but noise.
Guns and gun ownership are sacrosanct here, and people who do not live in rural America do not understand what are and aren’t acceptable topics of conversation. Last Saturday, for example, I had set up for the morning at our newly renovated library to sign people up for writing classes. A friend who owns a local business stopped to vent about Parkland, but waved off quickly, in silence, noting the group of women elders behind me discussing the shooting, the Scripture and the need to get prayer back into our schools.
Talk of church and prayer and getting back to “the good old days” is the norm here; talk of gun reform or gun control is not; and talking openly outside this norm, especially if you are a business owner, can hurt your livelihood.
Shortly after Trump was elected, when I first started writing about politics for the local newspaper, I started getting private emails (no public comments) of agreement that also begged for privacy. This was such a shock the first time it happened that I drove into town and found three such emailers at their places of work, simply so we could meet in person and feel less alone.
The day after the Parkland shootings, Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin (R), knowing better than to use the word “gun” in these parts in the aftermath of a shooting, called for prayer and restrictions on video games and movies. Bevin knows how to hit his mark with his churchgoing, moral-authority electorate, tweeting after the Vegas shooting, “You can’t regulate evil,” and, as USA Today reported last week, stating that “he sees the spree of shootings as a cultural problem, not a firearm problem. And he sees violent entertainment as the root of that cultural problem.” His people cheer.
As all three of our Anderson County schools received threats of gun violence this week, we counted not on Bevin but on the Facebook page of our small-town newspaper, as communities do now. Panicked parents left comments and got into the kind of no-filter social media arguments we’ve grown numb to:
“I was so in hopes for a peaceful day for students. Evil is rampent in our little town. We need Jesus now!”
“Schools needs alternative schools for these little bad … kids! Maybe like army style, teach them right from wrong just in case their parents can’t.”
“No slaps on the wrist, prosecute so these little brats learn its no joke and won’t be considered one.”
“Whoever is sayin hold back the lashings needs to get a grip. … Making threats like this is serious and needs to be punished … my kids or your kids doesnt matter. Be A PARENT!”
“All my kids are grown. You people crack me up. You have no idea how many time I was put in cuffs for spanking my children. SO quit blaming me as a parent. Blame liberal schools. Blame government. And shove it takes a village were the sun don’t shine.”
“Maybe if they start prosecuting these little degenerates then people will stop with all that BS!!”
People wanted prayer in schools, more attentive parenting, criminal prosecution of children, a return to corporal punishment, confiscation of kids’ cellphones. I counted 104 comments and replies. There was not a single mention of guns.
In the NRA’s first public remarks on the Parkland shooting, Wayne LaPierre said Thursday morning, “Schools must be the most hardened target in this country and evil must be confronted immediately with all necessary force to protect our kids.” LaPierre is preaching to the firearms choir with talk of “evil,” and I know the men who heed the call. One is my father, who is in his 70s, retired, on a fixed income, living in a small Missouri town with virtually no crime. He tells me he cannot remember the last time he shot a gun. But he listens to the NRA and Rush Limbaugh and Fox News, and they tell him he has got to man up; he has to protect our kids; he has to be prepared. So what does he do? He buys more guns.
That’s what life is like here in red America, where the questioning of religion and guns are equally off-limits. Where we have fortified, as evidenced by our own governor, a barbed entwining of church morality and guns. Hence the common refrain: “my God-given Second Amendment rights.”
Trump said Thursday that “we have to harden our schools, not soften them,” in his plea to arm teachers and coaches. The president, like the NRA, looks to guns as the means for demanding respect. Well-meaning Beltway pundits such as David Brooks ask that we show gun owners some respect. But Americans do not need to respect gun owners more, because we already do. We respect them the way we respect a hell-and-damnation preacher or an abrasive, controlling father. We respect gun owners because we are afraid of their guns.
Meanwhile, this week in rural Kentucky, a 13-year-old girl was charged with terroristic threatening at the middle school and was arraigned in juvenile court and ordered held in juvenile detention. An 11-year-old girl from the elementary school was charged with one count of terroristic threatening.
The investigations are ongoing. We are looking to our governor and the president we voted for to lead. We are saying our prayers. And nobody is talking about guns.