The rain wasn’t enough to keep hundreds of people from showing up to rally for stricter gun laws and safer schools in Marshall County on Saturday. The west Kentucky March For Our Lives event was in solidarity with demonstrations that took place across the country.
“It took me a while to find my voice, but now that I have I won’t stay silent.” That’s Lili Dunn. She’s a student at Marshall County High School where a shooter opened fire in January, killing two and injuring more than a dozen. Dunn and other students took turns delivering speeches at the rally.
Here is fellow classmate Korbin Brandon: “As the NRA has said countless times in their campaign ads, I will be able to vote in 2020 and they always seem to do their ‘we’re coming for you,’little thing. Well guess what NRA and those who do not take action...We are coming for you!” Classmate Mary Cox said, “Everyone keeps telling me guns don’t kill people...well guns might not kill people but complacency does.”
Student Makayla Wadkins said mental illness shouldn’t be to blame for all acts of gun violence. She said even though she had a difficult upbringing and suffers from depression and anxiety, she would never turn to violence. “Not ever once- as Lexi said- did I ever go get one of those guns that are just laying around my house... because that’s the kind of family I live in... I did not think to take one of those guns and kill another human being.” Wadkins said the more society blames shootings on a "lunatic with a gun" the less likely those struggling with mental illness will get the help they need.
Organizer Gloria Bittle said local students both organized and led the rally. “The speakers we had were decided by the students themselves, they organized this, this was their thing..they wrote their own speeches.”
Bittle said students asked Democratic 6th District House Representative Will Coursey to speak. His district includes Marshall County. Coursey said he has had a high standing with National Rifle Association in the past - but that has now changed. “Let me tell ya, I’ve always coveted my endorsement with the NRA. I did, I worked hard in years past to get that endorsement. Wayne Lapierre sent me an email the other day asking me if I was going to renew my membership with the NRA, and I responded that I would not be renewing my membership with the NRA.”
Calls for stricter gun laws dominated the conversation. Many of the students called on lawmakers to hear their requests. Here’s student Cloi Henke. “We’re just going to keep pushing for stricter gun laws. We need help because you know we’re not of age yet, so we need our adults to stand up for us and do what’s right.”
Henke said she expected to see mostly young people at the rally and was surprised to see many older people there as well.
Here’s 57-year-old Kathy Boer of Benton: “Well I’m here to support, number one, some decent, common sense gun control and certainly to support the young people who have a really, really good future ahead of them now, before I was kind of doubting that.”
And here's 75-year-old Harold Reynolds, also from Benton: “I think we need to start with our youth. That’s the only we’re going to have change... they need to be supported. I have a granddaughter that goes to school in Marshall County and I want her to be safe.”
People from as far away as San Francisco and New Hampshire were in attendance. So, too, were students from the region who wanted their voices heard. Here’s 16-year-old John Smetana from Murray High School. “You never think that it’s going to happen to someone you know and then it happened here in Marshall. I don’t want anyone to have to be scared that they or their friends are in danger. Because we’re in high school we shouldn’t have to deal with that.”
This is not the first time some of the students have spoken about these issues. 16-year-old Keaton Conner went to Frankfort last week on National School Walkout Day. This is her addressing the rally on Saturday: “Don’t wait until it happens to your community, or to your child, or till God forbid it happens to you. On January 23, 2018, what was the deadliest school shooting of the year, at the time, happened at my school. In the wake in the worst experience of my life, I want to ensure that no student is forced to feel the feelings I’ve felt these past months.” Conner, like so many other Marshall County High School students, was forever changed by the shooting in January.
Marshall County High School Freshman Lily Dunn says she is forever grateful that she arrived late to school on January 23. She said students shouldn't have to think ‘what if I had been two minutes earlier that day?’ She said it took her awhile to find her voice, but now she has it, she won’t stay silent. “How many people have to die before our government will listen to us. We are hurting and no one seems to care?" A member of the crowd replied "We care" to applause. Dunn said kids shouldn’t have to worry if they will die while trying to get an education.
Dr. Sterling Haring is a Vanderbilt University Medical Center surgeon who tended to some of the shooting victims. He drove from Nashville to speak at the local rally. “Two months ago I stood in a trauma bay and saw firsthand the destruction caused by a school shooting. A young person, barely a teenager, who’s life was forever changed by the actions of a classmate with a deadly weapon he should not have had access to.”
Haring described his thoughts while standing over the body of a "bullet-riddled teenager" on the day of the shooting. "I came to the stark realization that the response to this unthinkable tragedy would be nothing but tweets and Facebook posts from politicians who offer their thoughts and prayers. It made me sick," he said. After the shooting, Governor Matt Bevin called for a day of prayer. President Donald Trump said his 'thoughts and prayers' were with the victims. Students at the rally said that's not enough.
Lead adult organizer Heather Adams said the next step is to keep making noise. She said she and her son will continue writing to lawmakers and demanding change.
Emcee Mitch Coy asked the crowd to do the same. “Coming up, showing up, standing in the rain, listening...that’s wonderful. If you go home, and you don’t do a thing with what you heard here today...that’s criminal.”