The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

My rural Kentucky county is awash in guns. Where does that leave me?

I should be armed when I jog, my neighbors tell me. A gun is their one-size-fits-all solution to everything.

Rifles for sale at the Knob Creek Gun Range in West Point, Ky. (Jon Cherry/Bloomberg)
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I wake up thinking about guns.

I do not think about guns solely because 19 children and two teachers were shot to death in Uvalde, Tex., on May 24, or because a gunman opened fire from a rooftop on a Fourth of July parade in Highland Park, Ill., killing seven paradegoers and wounding many more.

I think about guns because, after three decades of political paralysis, Congress passed a law that requires more comprehensive background checks for young gun buyers, helps states pay for red flag laws, which allow judges to approve the removal of guns from people who may be in danger of using them on themselves or others, and bars more domestic violence offenders from buying firearms, closing the so-called “boyfriend loophole,” and I fear it will not be enough to stop the next mass shooter.

I think about guns, because our country is addicted to guns.

I live in rural Kentucky, in a county with a population of 23,000 people, and I have been told half a dozen times lately that I should be carrying a gun when I jog at the local park. What kind of gun? I wonder, as I lie there in the soft, predawn dark. What size gun? How often would I need to practice to remember how to use it? Where, in my spandex running clothes, would I carry a gun? I tripped on a tree root back in December and fell flat on my face. Would the gun go off if I fell? What if I shot myself? What if I shot someone else? Could I shoot someone?

I think about guns because guns are what I talked about most for the last several months as I ran in our local Republican primary for county magistrate. Not gas prices. Not the “stolen” election. Not caravans at the southern border. Not abortion. Not the mundane, budget-related duties of the seat I was running for. I talked about guns.

I am a Democrat who ran for local office as a Republican because in Anderson County, Kentucky, right down the road from the state capitol, Democrats no longer have a prayer of winning a partisan election, even if it is to serve in a nonpartisan job. This is die-hard Trump country now. Donald Trump won the county in both 2016 and 2020 with more than 70 percent of the vote. I figured that running on the Republican ticket, talking neighbor to neighbor with Republicans in a sensible manner about issues like guns would give me a fair shot.

I was wrong. I not only lost, I lost spectacularly. No matter how I tried, I could not convince voters that I was not going to show up at their door one day with a checklist, authorized by either our Democratic governor, Andy Beshear, or Democratic president, Joe Biden, and seize their guns. And when I was honest in telling them I believe AR-15-style guns are weapons of war and should be banned altogether? Voters laughed.

The term “gun culture” gets tossed around. But what does it mean to live in a place rooted in Trumpian (angry, unabashed, aggrieved, armed-to-the-teeth) 2022 gun culture?

I think about guns because, two days before our May 17 primary, a friend removed my campaign signs from his yard. Around 9:30 that morning, while I was driving to Sunday school and church, he had heard the pop-pop of gunshots as men in trucks drove by, randomly yelling my name and Hillary Clinton’s and cursing about liberals.

I think about guns because, in mid-April, it was rumored that a local machine parts shop had a doormat in the store with the face of a longtime female magistrate on it. It read “Wipe Your Feet Here.” I wanted to see this doormat for myself and ask some questions: Did they have a supply? Was it for sale? Who created it? The first two friends I told begged me not to go. Did I know the owner carries a gun? If I went, they each cautioned independently, would I take a law enforcement officer with me. I thought this sounded ridiculous. “Just have the officer wait for you in the parking lot!” one insisted. When I arrived at the shop, without the police, I pulled in behind a grayish gold truck with a “Let’s Go Brandon” sticker on the back window, and sat there thinking, “I don’t belong here. What am I doing?” I left.

I think about guns because, later the same day, I made myself go back to the shop. The owner was not there, so I asked the woman behind the counter my questions. She was angry. She went in the back to get a man. What man? Would he be armed and angry? I left as fast as I could.

People here openly carry their guns. Whether I am stopping by Kroger to pick up ice cream, grabbing a coffee on Main Street or stocking up on household supplies at Walmart, I am constantly aware that there are people around me carrying guns.

Who are the good guys with guns? Who are the bad guys with guns? How do you know?

I think about guns because, in the March 23 issue of the Anderson News, our weekly newspaper, there was a front-page story about a Republican state senator, Adrienne Southworth, who lives in my town, headlined, “Southworth bill would alter guns in school law.” Southworth’s bill proposed that citizens be allowed to carry guns in school buildings when students are not present.

I think about guns because I believe the Southworth bill was in response to the man who came to our school board meeting a few months earlier wearing a gun on his person. I was the citizen who pointed out the gun to the superintendent, after which the man was led outside to put his gun in his vehicle before returning to speak during the public comments section of the meeting.

I think about guns because the editor of our weekly newspaper regularly voices his full-throated support for guns. On June 14, he wrote, “Even in a nation so thoroughly divided by the 2nd Amendment, it’s nearly impossible to find anyone who doesn’t think schools need to be protected by trained professionals with guns and hardened as well as possible against intruders.” Nearly impossible? Really?

I think about guns because, in the previous week’s newspaper, the same editor wrote that when we reelected our county attorney “in last month’s primary, there isn’t a question that his pro-gun campaign messaging had something to do with it.” The county attorney won his primary handily. He will face no Democratic opposition in the general election.

Gun culture in the United States is like kudzu, often called “the invasive vine that ate the South” because of the way it systematically, over time, suffocated and destroyed native grasses, trees and plants until they became extinct. We can no longer go to school, parades, shopping malls, restaurants, concerts, night clubs, the grocery store, without wondering whether this is where we will get shot.

Guns culture is destroying our lives. And the solution most often proposed? More guns.

I have been waking up thinking about guns because, suddenly, there is a suspicious man hanging around the park trail where I jog. One day he drove up to talk to me. I thought he was trying to sell me drugs. A few days later, he tried to get a woman to go home with him. One morning I was running my last lap and spotted the man in a dark corner of the park, under some trees, as if he was lying in wait for me. I called law enforcement. As I stood next to the police car giving a description, I wondered, Would I feel safer here with a gun?

I think about guns, because thinking about guns in 2022 America is part of our all-day, everyday lives. When I warned a woman who often walks her dogs at the park about the suspicious man, she said as casually as if she were offering me a mint, “Oh, I’ll start carrying my gun. Do you have a gun?”

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