First Person: Gun violence nightmare persists from school to parenthood

Kenny with his four year old son Will at March for Our Lives last month in Washington, D.C. / Photo by Brad Swanson.

By Kenny Bledsoe:

Editor’s Note: Remembering the Columbine mass murder of April 20, 1999, on its 19th anniversary.

I was in 9th grade when two teenagers donned black trench coats, armed themselves to the teeth, and set about systematically murdering 12 of their classmates and a teacher before killing themselves at Columbine High School in Colorado. Rumors swirled among the students the next day at my school in rural eastern North Carolina. We all knew of a few disaffected kids who might be disturbed enough to carry out something like that. I wrote and recorded a song about one of them later in the year. We all knew that if anyone wanted to recreate Columbine, there would be essentially no way to stop them from acquiring the guns they would need to do it.

Mine was a pretty hardscrabble school, so we found some solace in dark humor about our own toughness. Columbine couldn’t happen there; if anyone pulled out a gun, several other students would return fire. As a 15-year-old, I had already been threatened with gun violence. I ran afoul of a violent group at the school by way of a teenage love triangle. Members of the group communicated to me more than once that if I showed up in certain places, it would be a mortal risk. No one ever pointed a gun at me, but I never tested the threats. I knew in 1999, just as in 2018, there was every reason to believe that these kids had the guns to carry them out.

Columbine was terrifying because it happened in a place where things like that were not supposed to happen. The same is true of so many other schools, churches, and towns whose names we all now know. In discussing gun violence, we all go to the newsy massacres in unexpected places without clear cause-and-effect relationships. We don’t think about the day-to-day shootings that happen between students over romantic feuds, transactions gone wrong, and interpersonal animosity. We don’t think about the terrorizing effect on students who face the pervasive fear of gun violence without ever actually being shot.

I was lucky enough to be able to move to a new school where gun violence was a less imminent threat to me, personally. Most students in that situation live like I did in 1999, with the knowledge that the only thing standing between them and a bullet is the will of the aggressor to find them and pull the trigger. And to the students of Columbine, Parkland, and every victim between them, the school they attended didn’t matter anyway. Now, even in schools with no history of gun violence, students live in constant fear of guns as they perform active shooter drills. 

I have children of my own now. I can’t live this nightmare again, this time from the perspective of my parents in 1999. I can’t stand idly by and watch extremists turn the dark humor of scared students on April 21, 1999, into reality. My children can’t live in a world where the only thing saving them from the threat of gun violence is the threat of gun violence. For nearly two decades now, this threat has surfaced and resurfaced in my life, and as the brave students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School have aptly put it, enough is enough.

Kenny Bledsoe is Secretary of Hunter Mill District Democratic Committee.