Gun violence’s distant echo

Alan Engdahl was driving home after an overnight shift in the oil field when his truck picked up a scratchy radio signal out of Gillette. It was the first sign of civilization since he had disappeared the afternoon before down 50 miles of wind-whipped prairie and rutted gravel roads, so Alan and his co-worker listened to the disc jockey tick through community news. Cattle prices were flat. T&T Guns had antique rifles on special. The Cowboy Draw lotto was up to $1 million. “And here’s something you don’t hear every day,” the radio host said. “We apparently have a liberal gun protest happening right here in Gillette.”

Alan had rarely heard anything described as liberal in northeast Wyoming, and now he listened as the disc jockey explained how 10 Campbell County High School students had marched downtown the previous afternoon to demand tighter gun laws. They said they wanted mandatory background checks on all gun purchases. They said they wanted to build a gun-control movement in solidarity with survivors of a shooting in Parkland, Fla., and tens of thousands of other teenagers protesting across the country. But this was Wyoming, where the high school yearbook devoted four pages to “Hunting: No Greater Sport,” and a local club funded college scholarships by raffling off AR-15s. The protesters had been met downtown with middle fingers and the warning of suspensions.

“They should be expelled,” Alan remembered joking to his co-worker, once the radio switched back to classic rock and they turned onto the highway toward Gillette. “That bleeding-heart nonsense might fly in New York or D.C., but in Wyoming? That’s treason.”

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. Wyoming has more guns per capita than any other state, with sales rising in each of the past five years, and more than 80 percent of adults in Campbell County have firearms in their homes. Alan once owned more than 250 — an entire storage unit of rifles, handguns and antiques — until he committed a drug felony in 2006 and lost his legal right to own guns. A popular state slogan remained taped to one of his trucks: “Welcome to Wyoming: Consider Everyone Armed.”

He parked at a ramshackle house on the outskirts of town, where the newspaper waited at the kitchen table. On the front page he noticed a story about the gun protest, the first that anyone could remember in Gillette. “A Walkout for Change,” the headline read. Above that was a picture of several students marching, and there in the midst of them, holding a protest sign, was his 16-year-old daughter, Moriah..

TOP: Alan and Moriah Engdahl’s home on the outskirts of Gillette is often rattled by underground blasts from a nearby coal mine. The oil and coal industries are vital to the town’s economy. ABOVE LEFT: Alan Engdahl walks with another of his daughters, Rebecca Engdahl, 19, as he loads his truck and prepares to leave for two weeks last month to work on an oil rig. ABOVE RIGHT: A display at Campbell County High School in Gillette includes a newspaper clipping about students’ walkout for gun control. Moriah is in the center of the photo, holding up a sign.

Now a week later, that sign was in his house, tucked into the closet of a bedroom where Moriah had been spending much of her time, with her door closed, since the protest. 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.

 

 

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