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Rural Blog: Students in rural communities facing backlash when speaking out in favor of gun control

Recent school shootings have inspired a wave of gun-control activism, some of it from students, and a few of those students from rural areas. “In a more liberal city like Parkland, Fla., or at a rally in Washington, these students might have been celebrated as young leaders,” Jack Healy reports for The New York Times. “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.”

Some students in Benton, Kentucky, began speaking out for gun control after the deadly January shooting at their high school. Soon afterward, friends started shunning them, locals on social media made fun of them and said they should have died during the Marshall County High School shooting, Healey reports. Debate and action in Benton has largely focused on how to detect potentially dangerous students and keep schools safer instead of limiting gun rights: After the shooting, the high school hired more armed officers and locked many of the school’s doors. Every morning, students are scanned with metal detector wands and have their backpacks searched.

“Speaking out in a place like Marshall County, Ky., carries a price — measured in frayed friendships, arguments with parents and animosity within the same walls where classmates were gunned down,” Healy reports.

Ten high school students from Campbell County High School in Gillette, Wyoming, faced similar backlash when they marched downtown to demand tighter gun laws in solidarity with the survivors of the Parkland, Florida, shooting. The protest was a hard sell in a state with more guns per capita than any other state and rising sales in each of the past five years. “More than 80 percent of adults in Campbell County have firearms in their homes,” Eli Saslow reports for The Washington Post.

“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,” Saslow reports. One of them is Moriah Engdahl, 16. Her father, Alan, had more than 250 guns until he lost the right to own firearms after committing a drug felony in 2006.

Moriah’s support of gun control has been a source of tension between the two, with Alan teasing her frequently, asking her if she’d managed to get everyone’s guns yet. Though Moriah, a student journalist, had an independent streak, she had never questioned gun rights until the Parkland shooting. The more she researched online, though, the more she became convinced that the problem in Parkland and at home in Gillette (which has one of the nation’s highest suicide rates) is unfettered access to guns.

Moriah spoke to the school board recently in an attempt to dissuade them from arming teachers. She went alone, since the original 10 students protesting in Gillette had eroded to four: one student’s furious mother pulled her daughter into the car during the protest, and in the days afterward a few students said they wanted to focus on less controversial issues like remembering victims or discouraging bullying. The remaining four included Moriah and the outspoken editor of the school newspaper, and two others. At a meeting at Starbucks to plan their next steps, one lamented that “Even my dad has started calling me a gun-control libtard,” Saslow reports.

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The Rural Blog is a digest of events, trends, issues, ideas and journalism from and about rural America, from the IRJCI, based at the University of Kentucky. The Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues is an extension program for rural journalists and news outlets. It takes no positions on issues and advocates only for strong news coverage, responsible commentary and things that make them possible, such as open-government laws. For more information see www.RuralJournalism.org.

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