Survivors of gun violence in west Kentucky led protests against the Friday visit of National Rifle Association leader Oliver North to a Republican rally at Murray State University.
Oliver North was invited by the Marshall and Calloway County Republican parties as the featured speaker for their ‘Night Before Fancy Farm’ event. The invitation of North to speak at a local GOP rally sparked an uproar from a community that experienced a deadly school shooting less than seven months ago.
North is a retired Marine Lieutenant Colonel and in May was named the next president of the NRA. He is also infamous for his involvement in the Iran-Contra scandal.
Despite the visit's backlash, the local Republican parties hosting North said insensitivity was not their intent.
The west Kentucky region saw two deadly school shootings in a roughly 20-year period: The 1997 Heath High School shooting in McCracken County and the Marshall County High School shooting last January. A group of students from the latter organized the Friday demonstration. Survivors from those shootings delivered speeches before protesters marched through campus.
16-year-old Cloi Henke of Marshall County told the crowd that adults rationalized their decision in inviting Oliver North by saying that the students speaking out are “just kids.”
“We haven’t been kids since what happened at our school,” Henke said. “We haven’t been able to feel like kids or even act like one.”
Hollan Holm is a survivor of the Heath High School shooting. He said the NRA wants to make a conversation about gun violence prevention a conversation about taking away guns.
“We don’t want to take your guns, we just want your guns to not take our lives,” Holm said.
Shaundelle Brooks is the mother of Nashville-area Waffle House shooting victim Akilah Dasilva. Dasilva was shot dead along with three others in the restaurant in April. Brooks said she wanted to support Marshall survivors.
“We’re going through what they’re going through,” Brooks said. “We just want to show our support, let them know that we’re here for them. We’re in the fight, you know we’re gonna fight, we’re a family now.”
Protesters marched through Murray State’s campus, carrying signs that read, “Shame on you, Marshall County Republicans,” and “How much blood will it take?”
They were met with some counter-protesters at the steps of Lovett, who expressed support for the NRA.
Wearing an ‘Infowars’ t-shirt, Tina Cavitt of Paducah declared, “I’m a proud descendant of Nathan Bedford Forrest.” Forrest is a Civil War Confederate general and the first leader of the Klu Klux Klan. “I support the Second Amendment... gun rights... parents for teachers with guns, guns at schools. We need more safety at our schools… I have a child,” Cavitt said.
NRA supporter Robert Johnson attempted to take the microphone after Marshall County High School students finished speaking at the beginning of the demonstration. Johnson told WKMS News that he believes the cause of school shootings is bullying, not guns. With regard to the Marshall shooting case, Kentucky State Police Detective David Dick testified that after an interview with accused shooter Gabe Parker, “He was clear there was no kind of bullying.”
Chapters of left-leaning Veterans For Peace were present to diffuse any confrontation and aid in providing a “safety barrier” for protesters.
Some attendees of North’s speech smiled and waved at protesters as they entered Lovett Auditorium. Protesters shouted “blood is on your hands,” and “shame on you” at people walking inside. They chanted “Hey, hey, NRA, how many kids have you killed today?”
Inside the GOP rally, North said children are America’s most precious resource and said the NRA is committed to protecting them in schools. He described the ‘School Shield’ consulting program and the ‘Eddie Eagle’ program that teaches kids not to touch guns.
Outside, protesters voiced their concern with the growing amount of gun violence in America. Evansville Veterans For Peace member Rey Kessler said he doesn’t believe that “more guns” solves this issue.
“That’s their answer more guns- for teachers, for preachers, for anyone,” Kessler said. “ I’m here for my granddaughter and I want a better world for her. What I marched for in the 60s and 70s- well I’m here again. The climate that we’re living under right now scares me more than anything Nixon could have thought of.”
Sam George of Murray said she grew up doing active shooter drills in school. “Enough is enough. I grew up here and in high school and I had to do lockdown drills and constantly fear for my life. Now I’m 25-years-old- it’s time this is over,” George said.
Marshall County High School student Hailey Case ended her speech with a call to action for young people her age: “Now we have to focus on cleaning up this mess so our kids don’t have to,” Case said.