A lone NRA supporter is shouted down at protest against Oliver North appearance
Scott Utterback, Louisville Courier Journal
MURRAY, Ky. — Oliver North, incoming president of the National Rifle Association, drew an enthusiastic welcome in Western Kentucky Friday even as protesters outside jeered and shouted “Shame!” as attendees entered the auditorium at Murray State University.
The Republican fundraiser was controversial, coming just seven months after the shooting at the nearby Marshall County High School that left two students deadand 14 injured. Around 100 people gathered outside to protest gun violence.
But inside an enthusiastic crowd of about 300 filled the Lovett Auditorium for the event billed as the Marshall County GOP’s “Night Before Fancy Farm,” giving North a lengthy, standing ovation.
North largely avoided the gun debate, focusing mostly on patriotism, freedom and the future for children, including his 17 grandchildren.
“Those 17 grandkids are growing up in a country that needs help, by people serving at every level in public office,” North said. “I want those 17 grandkids growing up knowing what public service really is.”
It was midway through his speech before he even mentioned Marshall High in saying the best way to avoid the “murder, the mayhem, the madness” students experienced at the school was better school safety. He recommended a free program the NRA offers, “National School Shield,” to assess schools and recommend safety procedures.
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“We will never waiver from our fight to protect our constitutional freedoms and we will never waiver our fight to protect our children,” he said.
North took a few shots at the “media elite” and “fake news” but devoted most of his speech to American values and the importance of the Republican party in upholding those values.
“The keepers of the flame of America today are members of the Republican Party all across this land,” he said.
But earlier Friday, protesters who gathered on the Murray campus focused on the shooting at Marshall High, some offering emotional comments about the need to control gun violence.
“I will never forget that day. It felt like any other until my friends and I were running for our lives,” said Marshall student Hailey Case. “I remember looking over the school grounds and all I remember seeing is panic and terror in their most pure forms.
“Seeing my school like that broke me,” she said. “I never should have had to call my friends crying, worrying if they’re still alive.”
She said students — children — “have to focus” on change so the next generations won’t have to.
“If we could just be children then we would,” Case said. “If we could just worry about school or dances or dating or just hanging out with friends, then we would. We pick being a kid every single time, but we can’t.”
Shaylee Cullop, 19, vividly recalls the Jan. 23 shooting at the school where she has many friends.
Hailey was in the school the morning two students were killed and many were injured after another student opened fire.
Jeff Faughender, Louisville Courier Journal
“I was panicking because I couldn’t reach them right away,” said the Murray State University sophomore. “I can’t imagine being a parent and not knowing if your kid’s alive.”
A Marshall County High School student has been charged in the shooting that left two students dead and 14 injured.
Cullop was among a group of friends who gathered Friday afternoon in a shady courtyard on the Murray campus to protest North’s speech.
Around 100 people attended the rally that culminated with a march to the auditorium where North was to speak, participants ranging from high school students to graying Vietnam-era veterans.
“One of my best friends goes to Marshall,” said Nora Dodd, 14, a student at Murray High School, among those who participated. “It scares me so much to think of losing her.”
Vietnam veteran Jim Wohlgemuth, of Nashville, clutching a Veterans for Peace flag, said he and other vets came in support of the young people who have organized to protest gun violence, especially, school shootings.
“We come in support of the kids that are fighting so hard and doing such a good job,” he said.
Many at the rally questioned the decision to invite the president of the powerful gun lobby barely seven months after the shooting at nearby Marshall High.
“It’s like taking a stick and poking it in the eye of the community,” Wohlgemuth said.
Organizers have said they meant no disrespect to victims and survivors of the shooting but said the region is a strong supporter of the Second Amendment and many from the area feel strongly about the right of law-abiding citizens to own guns.
North’s appearance was hosted by the Marshall County Republican Party on the eve of the annual St. Jerome Parish picnic at Fancy Farm, Kentucky, an event known as the annual kickoff to the fall political season.
Groups who gathered before the speech to rally against gun violence included survivors of the Marshall County school shooting, as well as the 1997 shooting at Heath High School, also in western Kentucky, and relatives of Akilah Dasilva, one of the four people killed in April in a shooting at a Nashville-area Waffle House.
Dasilva’s mother, Shaundelle Brooks, spoke briefly at the rally, thanking everyone for the support after her son was killed and called for an end to gun violence and easy access to firearms she said claimed her son.
“It is a living nightmare that I do not wish on anyone,” she said.
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Other groups that participated included #NoRA (no Rifle Association), Pennyrile Indivisible, Black Lives Matter Louisville and the Newtown Action Alliance.
North, a retired Marine lieutenant colonel, has long been a controversial figure, dating back to his role in his involvement in the mid-1980s Iran-Contra arms for hostages scandal during the administration of President Ronald Reagan. He was found guilty on three charges relating to the scandal, but a federal judge later overturned the convictions.
North became a television commentator, has published several books and in May was named president of the NRA, the powerful gun lobby which has grown controversial amid a string of school shootings.
North’s speech Friday came just hours after the student charged in the shooting, Gabe Parker, 16, appeared in court for a hearing in the case.
Parker has been charged as an adult with murder and assault in the killing of two 15-year-old students and wounding 14 others. He has pleaded not guilty and is being held in the McCracken County Juvenile Center.
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