The ‘Treasonous’ Teens Living in One Nation Under Guns

A prayer vigil for the victims of Marshall County High School. (Alan Warren/The Messenger-Inquirer via AP)

Teens seem somehow wired for disagreement in their adolescent years. Sometimes this is simply a product of exercising one’s personhood, other times it seems connected to a sort of magic of youth that lies, in part, in their relative newness to the culture. They are old enough to know how to communicate and observe and think critically, but young enough to question the status quo.

This is evidenced beautifully in a recent Washington Post profile by Eli Saslow of Wyoming teen Moriah Engdahl, who seeks out every possible way to be the opposite of her father, Alan. Moriah is a student journalist, her father is a media-hating Trump supporter; she supports gay rights, he thinks “that stuff is better off staying hidden.” Moriah is the youngest and most headstrong of  Alan’s four daughters, and he calls her “the mouthy, hard-headed one” with pride, even though they butt heads— most recently over the issue of gun regulations.

Alan owned more than 250 guns before a 2006 felony conviction for dealing meth. After the February school shooting in Parkland, Florida., Moriah started reading up about gun issues and was one of ten students in her county to engage in a protest march in solidarity with the Parkland students.

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. For his part, Alan had considered grounding Moriah for skipping school but decided against it. “I’m pretty sure the rest of Wyoming is going to punish her for me,” he said, so instead he had chosen to needle Moriah at every opportunity, including now, when she came out from her bedroom and walked into the kitchen.

“Win any popularity contests at school today?” he asked her. She rolled her eyes and ignored him, so he tried again.

“Did you manage to get everyone’s guns yet?” he said.

“How many times do I have to tell you it’s not about that?” she said. “We’re just pushing for more safety, a little more control.”

“That’s a bad word,” Alan said. “First it’s gun control, then it’s confiscation. I don’t know where you learned any different.”

Moriah exhibits an impressive empathy for her father and others who think like he does, as well as a clear-eyed ability to see nuance that the adults around her appear to resist. As her peers are dissuaded by the public backlash, she persists — with a devotion to finding the most effective way to get the adults in charge to really listen to her.

Consider this scene in a Starbucks where Moriah and a few friends gather to strategize, with one friend lamenting that even her own dad has started calling her “a gun-control libtard:”

“Quieter. Please,” Moriah said again, because now the woman at the next table had set down her newspaper and was openly staring and scowling in their direction. Moriah leaned in and spoke just above a whisper. “We need to be completely anger-less, or else people will think we want to take away their guns and melt them into a statue of Obama. We’re not going to win a shouting contest. We need to stay on message and focus on one thing.”

Moriah’s story pairs well with two recent pieces reported from Benton, Kentucky—one in the New York Times by Pat Healy, the other on Jezebel, by Anna Merlan— where two students were killed in January. While Wyoming has more guns per capita than any other state, Kentucky “has the highest percentage of legislators in the country with at least an A- grade from the NRA,” writes Merlan. So both these states offer important insight into the national battle over gun regulation. In the Post, Saslow writes of Wyoming:

If America had in fact begun to reconsider its relationship with guns after two decades of escalating mass shootings, then a crucial test was now arriving in the rural West, where that relationship has long been inseparable.

Merlan makes a similar point about Kentucky: “What happens in Kentucky—one of the most conservative and gun-friendly states in the country—could be an indicator of just how willing we are to make any kind of change.”

Healy and Merlan are are both drawn to Kentucky partly to assess the aftermath of the Marshall County High School shooting in January, and partly because of a small group of students, like Moriah, who are engaging in activism despite the “bedrock support for gun rights” around them. Healy quotes a county judge who doesn’t think the Second Amendment “is the issue: If somebody gets it in their head they’re going to kill, they’re going to do it.”

This is exactly the widespread mentality that the Parkland teens have been fighting, and which seems to understandably scare young people. The young are supposed to be able to believe that adults have some measure of control, that few things are truly hopeless. To be told that you must be resigned to being murdered in school should feel incomprehensible.

And many of the adult claims against young activists seem incomprehensible. While the 15-year-old Kentucky school shooter is being charged as an adult, “letters and commenters in local news media said the [protesting] students were too young to know anything.”  If the shooter is old enough to be treated as an adult, how come they aren’t?

As described in the Times, adults have little sympathy or patience for youth activism.

Mr. Neal, a hulking former Marine, is a staunch gun rights supporter who said he carried a pistol on his side as he finished his lunch at JoJo’s Café. He said that many adults thought the student protesters were simply “marching to march.” Some parents said the students were being goaded by anti-gun groups outside Marshall County and were just seeking attention.

“They want to show, ‘Look at me, look at me,’” said P. J. Thomason, whose son Case was wounded in the shooting. “Everyone that owns a gun is wrong — that’s what they teach them nowadays.”

This is an age-old criticism of teenage behavior, whether it’s self-harm or an eating disorder or suicide attempts or, apparently, marching for gun regulations: they’re exhibiting “cries for attention.” But what does it matter if it’s a cry for attention? What is the difference between a cry for attention and a cry for help? Is ignoring a cry for help the right thing to do?

Merlan’s story for Jezebel is unique in the currently-saturated field of gun issue reportage for a very valuable reason: her effort to understand and explain what she terms “gun fatalism” — the belief that there is nothing to be done about gun violence. Rather than dismissing fatalists as gun addicts prizing deadly toys over young lives, she unravels the reasoning held even by “people who said they didn’t see the need for bump stocks or AR-15s in civilian life,” but are certain there can never be fewer handguns or hunting rifles “or less ready access to them in their own communities, ever.”

In Benton, she finds “a kind of deep uncertainty, verging on resignation, about whether violence involving a gun can ever truly be mitigated or prevented” — a sharp contrast to Parkland, where she’d just been. The two towns are also dichotomous economically:

Both communities are struggling to understand an act of violence that tore through them, but one is rural, and one suburban, one lower-income and one wealthy. Benton has a median household income of around $42,000 a year; Parkland’s is roughly $126,000.

This point recalls one from Saslow’s description of Gillette, the Wyoming town where Moriah and her father live, which is much more similar to Benton than Parkland, with its economy heavily reliant on coal and oil.

The town suffered from high rates of transiency and wild economic swings, which contributed to one of the country’s highest suicide rates. “Gillette syndrome” was the term popularized by one psychologist, and it had become the favorite local explanation for all kinds of economic and emotional instability.

Economic hardship breeds hopelessness, and what else is gun fatalism but a specific kind of hopelessness? Even Moriah, who dreams of moving to New York, wonders if her dream is futile. The teen shooter in Kentucky was reportedly motivated, in part, by hopelessness: news reports have connected his atheism to a lack of purpose, and aspirations of being a scientist coupled with a failing grade in a science class as a recipe that produced despair. As Merlan explains,

“The biggest thing that he gave me was that he said he was an atheist and that life had no purpose, had no meaning, his life had no purpose. Other people’s lives also had no purpose,” Hilbrecht said, according to WKMS. He added that Parker described wanting to “further society through science” but said he was failing a science class, making him feel even more hopeless.

But while adults in these towns point to issues other than guns, including hopelessness and despair among their youth, they don’t seem to realize that the critical difference between the student protesters and kids like Kentucky’s school shooter is exactly that: the protesters have hope, they have a sense of purpose. Even if adults disagree with their motivations and their goals, that should be a heartening realization. These kids aren’t giving up.

I’d like to say that neither are the gun regulation-opposing adults in their lives, but Merlan’s story doesn’t give a lot of hope. The non-regulatory measures are either weak or stalled: A bill that “would put more mental health professionals in schools, one for every 1,500 students” has no clear funding; a bill that “would make it a misdemeanor to leave guns unsecured around minor children” was introduced in January, never read by the House chairman, and has since stalled in committee. As Merlan notes, it’s the only bill that “even remotely touches on the alleged circumstances of the Marshall shooting,” in which the shooter used a gun that belonged to his stepfather.

There’s very little question that this particular shooting was able to occur because the teenager involved was, allegedly, able to get access to an unsecured firearm. Access to guns at home is a common thread in school shootings; a 2004 report from the Department of Education and the Secret Service found that two-thirds of guns used in school shootings were ones that the shooters got from their own homes or stole from relatives.