BENTON, Ky. — Jeff Dysinger’s daughter survived two bullets from a classmate at her Kentucky high school this year, but he hasn’t joined in the national outcry over guns that escalated after 17 people died in a Florida school shooting three weeks later.
Dysinger owns an AR-15 military-style rifle — the same weapon used in the Parkland, Florida, high school shooting on Feb. 14. He believes deeply in the right to bear arms. And he says the eruptions of school violence in Florida, Kentucky and elsewhere aren’t about guns.
After his 15-year-old daughter Hannah was shot in the arm and chest at Marshall County High, anger raged inside him. But the calls to curb assault-weapon sales that came from the Florida students didn’t strike a chord with him.
“I think everybody in rural Kentucky, we’re all brought up with guns, I mean we’ve all been around guns our entire life,” said Dysinger, a former soldier who has used his AR-15 for sport shooting and hunting. “Kids in cities like (Parkland, Florida) don’t get that.”
Hannah Dysinger also has not spoken out against guns, but says she, like her father, wants to ensure they don’t fall into the hands of people who shouldn’t have them. She has called for background checks on every gun sold.
There is evidence to support the notion that urban and rural Americans are divided when it comes to guns. A Pew Research poll from April 2017 showed 63 percent of Americans in rural areas said it’s more important to support gun rights than gun control, compared to only 37 percent in urban areas. The poll surveyed 3,930 people from April-18, 2017, and had a margin of error of plus or minus 2.8 percentage points.
After the Florida shootings, Dysinger never turned his ire on the National Rifle Association or lax gun regulations. Rather, he posted a photo of himself on Facebook with his assault rifle.
“Please stop talking about AR-15s. Yes, my daughter was shot, yes I’m angry,” he wrote four days after the Florida shooting. “But I can tell you it’s not a gun thing.”
Guns are a way of life around Benton, nestled in western Kentucky near the Land Between The Lakes, a federally protected outdoorsman’s paradise. Even the school system’s top official has hesitated to blame firearms, saying the handgun used to kill two students Jan. 23 at Hannah’s high school didn’t fire itself.
In contrast, the protests and action sparked after the Valentine’s Day killings at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland have continued for weeks as teens from the school score legislative victories that restrict guns.
“I think everybody here respects guns. We appreciate the opportunity to have them,” former Marshall County Sheriff Brian Roy said. “We respect the Second Amendment. We’re not going to be the type to go out and have any dramatic changes, because we’ve grown up with guns, for hunting.”
In Marshall County, the talk after the shootings centered on improving security and bringing in more armed personnel, said Patrick Adamson, a youth director at a church in Benton.
“You hear more of that here than you do about gun control, and in Miami you’re going to hear more gun control and you have people kind of running with that,” Adamson said. “I’m not saying either one is the answer. I don’t know.”
Marshall County’s school superintendent, Trent Lovett, said the familiarity some students at the high school have with guns may have saved lives on the day of the shooting. Police say 15-year-old Gabriel Parker secretly took a Ruger 9 mm handgun from his home and opened fire in a commons area, killing two students and wounding several others.
The shooter, Lovett said, had fumbled with the pistol while trying to change ammunition magazines.
“Some of our boys who are hunters probably helped save a lot of students, because they could tell when (Parker) ran out of the first clip and was trying to change to the second clip,” Lovett said. “They knew he didn’t know what he was doing, and that’s when they yelled, ‘Run!’ because they knew that was their time to get out.”
Dysinger said if Parker had a more powerful gun, there could have been more deaths in Marshall County. But he says the Florida killings were tied to the failure to keep guns away from the shooting suspect, Nikolas Cruz.
“I can go lay an AK-47 in the middle of a gymnasium during a basketball game, and I promise you it won’t kill one person,” he said. “It’s not until someone picks it up that it becomes dangerous.”
Hannah Dysinger declined to be interviewed. But in a letter published last month in a Kentucky newspaper, she described the problem as “a mix of gun accessibility, parenting, today’s society and a lack of safety measures” in schools. She called for background checks on every gun sold, but also said she was open to the idea of teachers carrying guns.
On the day of the Kentucky shooting, police say Parker fled after dropping the gun and tried to blend in with students. He ended up huddled in a school building near the football field with students, including Keaton Conner.
Most of the people in the room were crying or upset, Conner said. “But one of them wasn’t. He was just sitting there, cold expression on his face,” she said. Then police burst in and took Parker away.
Weeks later Conner was inspired by the Florida students speaking out about guns and helped lead a student protest at the Kentucky capitol in March.
“This is a gun-heavy area, and people get very defensive whenever people start talking about regulating that,” she said. “They don’t understand. I feel like if they understood what gun control meant, they would be more likely to get on board with it.”
Dysinger said gun control for him means keeping firearms locked away. He said the Kentucky shooting suspect shouldn’t have been able to secretly take a gun from his home.
“I can tell you, nobody … can get to my guns,” he said.
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