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In Rural Kentucky, Activists 'Tread Lightly' On Gun Control

Camila Domonoske/NPR

A musician and hunting guide running for Congress as a Democrat, arguing for gun regulation. A gun-owning doctor who treated victims of a school shooting, and never wants to do it again. Student shooting survivors who support the Second Amendment and have joined the "Never Again" movement.

When they stand up to address the crowd at a March for our Lives rally in western Kentucky on Saturday, they won't just be pushing for changes in policy.

They'll be pushing for a change in the way this community talks about guns — trying to find a way to start a conversation where there's always been a shouting match.

Alonzo Pennington, the candidate, works half the year as a hunting guide. His views on gun regulation are informed by personal experience, and professional pride.

Bump stocks? "A bump stock makes your gun inaccurate and it makes it malfunction." High-capacity magazines? "If you're too lazy to load a smaller clip, then you don't need to be taking the time out there and hunt anyhow."

On Saturday, he says, "I'm going to speak as a father who has kids in school, a father who's worried about their safety. But I'm going to speak as a gun owner who believes that we should take the time and worry more about who we're selling these guns to than how many guns we're selling."

Marshall County in western Kentucky was the site of a school shooting in January that killed two students and injured 18 more.

Sterling Haring, a physician who's doing his residency in Nashville, treated victims of the shooting. He says what he saw that day was "shocking," and drove him to speak out.

"I am unwilling to continue taping together bodies and lives of victims of gun violence without saying something," he says.  

Haring, who grew up in Arkansas, has been a gun owner his entire adult life. "When I was eight, I was given a .22 rifle. When I was 12, I got a shotgun for Christmas," he says. "And when I was 14, my uncle gave me an assault rifle when I got my Eagle Scout award," he says.

"Some people are sport shooters and some people are avid hunters and some people feel threatened and want to keep a gun in their home. I think those things are legitimate pursuits," Haring says.

But he thinks that the conversation about guns in America has been manipulated to divide people, on an issue where he sees a lot of agreement — and a lot of middle ground.

"We all agree that lethal weapons should be harder to get," he says. And he'd gladly give up his most powerful weapon, despite its sentimental value, to promote safety.

"This is not an 'us and them' conversation," he says. "This is all 'us.'"

"And if places like Marshall County and Florida don't remind us of that, I'm not sure what will."  

Students who survived the Marshall County shooting are also speaking at the rally. They're emphasizing "gun safety," rather than gun control.

"You have to tread lightly," says freshman Seth Adams, one of the speakers. "You'll get a lot of people who will hear things, they'll hear certain words or phrases, and they'll plug their ears, disregard everything else that you say."

Adams is a freshman at Marshall County High School, a shooting survivor who was inspired by the Parkland students to join the nationwide movement protesting gun violence. His mother is a lead organizer of the Saturday rally — her only previous organizing experience, she says, was her own wedding.

Adams supports the national initiative, but like other students in Marshall County, he's focusing his energies close to home — in a rural, white, conservative community where gun ownership is common and the idea of "gun control" is not popular.

Scott Cosner is the father of two 15-year-old boys who were injured in the Marshall County High School shooting. One of his sons was shot in the face, shattering his jaw; the other was trampled.

Both are recovering well, and back running track again. And they're looking forward to getting back on the shooting range.

"They're excited about the summer," Cosner says. "We're going out and we're going to shoot ARs this summer, when we've got some more time ... They don't mind the guns, you know."

He doesn't support calls for greater gun regulation; he says gun control won't solve the problem.

"Everybody's wanting to point a finger, and that's all I'm taking out of a lot of the protests ... 'It's the government's fault that kids are getting shot.' No, it's not the government's fault. It's our fault," he says. "Our country's moved away from from God. We've taken punishment out of school."

Student activists in Marshall County know that a lot of people here feel the same way.They know arguments about gun control, if framed as arguments against guns in general, will fail.
But where most of America has seen an impasse, they see the beginning of a conversation. And they also see a space where gun rights and gun regulation overlap.

Keaton Conner, a junior at Marshall County High School who has participated in multiple protests and rallies at the state capitol, emphasizes that she's not trying to take anyone's guns away.

"I realize that guns are not always a bad thing," she says. "But, you know, I don't see the reason for anybody to have these bump stocks or large-capacity magazines. I've grown up around people who hunt. I know that there are alternatives."

Seth Adams, the freshman preparing for the rally on Saturday, says he's a firearm enthusiast who's "fascinated" by guns. "But that is to say, we still need to be safe with them," he says. "We need to have proper precautions and have rules in place."

Among other things, he emphasizes the importance of safer gun storage, to keep weapons from being taken by people who don't own them.  

Adams' girlfriend, freshman Lela Free, says she's all for the Second Amendment — her dad owns guns — and supports gun regulation inspired by Canada's laws. "I really like the idea of different permits and different hoops you have to jump through for the different kind of guns," she says.

And junior Leighton Solomon, who was never politically involved before Parkland, is just beginning to talk about gun control and school safety.

In fact, this is new for her whole community, she says.

"We've never really had this conversation," she says. "I think it's really good that we have these opposing opinions shooting left and right, just because it's starting a conversation.

"This is what the beginning of change is," she says. "That there's really a conversation happening at all — I think that really means something good is going to come from this."

Jonese Franklin