By Jill Burke for craigmedred.news
Far from the metropolitan areas that today dominate the American consciousness, remote in relation to the contiguous United States, the community of Bethel, AK population 6,300 – is one of the bookends on a mass-shooting generation of school students that rose in protest across the nation on Saturday.
It was in Bethel in 1997 that Evan Ramsey took a Mossberg Model 500, 12-gauge, pump shotgun into school to kill. Before he could be subdued, he’d fired shots that killed the school’s principal and a fellow student.
Twenty-one years later, under blue skies in a land where winter still rules this time of year, about fifteen activists – a mix of students and educators – formed a small, March for Our Lives event on Saturday. The day’s temperature barely warmed to freezing, but the short days of the near-Arctic winter were fast lengthening as they strolled from the Bethel cultural center (Yupiit Piciryarait Cultural Center) to a building owned by the Bethel Native Corporation and back.
The small group carried signs echoing the views heard nationally: “Protect our children, ban assault rifle;, “Speak out loud, let it out;” “I don’t remember sharp shooter or human shield in my teacher contract, #booksnotbullets;” and “No more massacres, America’s children have a right to safe education.”
Bethel is far from Parkland, Fla., the site of the shooting that sparked the protest. The two communities are near the extreme northwest and southeast corners of the North American continent. Parkland is on the coast of the Atlantic Ocean not far from the tropics; Bethel is near the coast of the windswept Bering at the northern edge of the Pacific Ocean.
Separated by vast geographical distances, they nonetheless share a bond in the experience of a fatal school shooting and a desire that something be done. This is some of what they had to say about the shooting that rocked their community.
Maddie Reichard, 25, the event organizer, was a preschool student when the 1997 shooting happened.
“I kept thinking it was a movie. And that it was a joke. But it wasn’t,” she said.
Reichard works now as a teacher in the Ayaprun Elitnaurvik Yukpik-language immersion school in Bethel and serves as manager of the Kuskokwim 300 Sled Dog Race, the community’s best-known sporting event.
She said the reason for the march was simple: “We wanted our voices to be heard.”
Bethel is in a somewhat unusual position in the gun debate. Many residents obtain a significant share of their sustenance from the land and the sea. Firearms are everyday tools. People use them to hunt for food, or for protection from wildlife when gathering berries.
Many of the people on the snowmachines traveling the still frozen Kuskokwim River carry firearms for wilderness survival. Almost every boat traveling the river in the ice-free months to come will likely contain a firearm for the same reason.
Firearms have a valued role in the community’s daily life and culture. Yet organizers of the march do not see gun control as a threat to their hunting tradition. How widely that view is shared across rural Alaska is hard to say. The Ruger Mini-14, a semi-automatic rifle, is one of the most popular firearms in the state’s villages.
Few in rural Alaska view that firearm as an “assault rifle,” but writing a law that leaves the Mini-14 legal while outlawing more ominous-appearing weapons is not easy. Still Reichard and others would like to see lawmakers try.
“I have a gun,” Reichard said by telephone the day before the march. “We have to go out and catch food so we can eat throughout the winter, but that’s a different kind of weapon than an assault rifle. I’m not going out and shooting a moose with an assault rifle. And I am also not defending my home with an AK-47. That’s not an effective way to defend your home.”
“We’re asking for stronger restrictions on military grade weapons that should actually only be in the hands of trained professionals, and (we’re asking for) background checks.”
Bethel Regional High School senior Kelly O’Brien, 17 helped organize a 17-minute school walkout on March 14 in concert with students across the nation and planned to be in the Saturday march as well.
O’Brien wants tighter regulations and more rigorous background checks, measures she feels will help keep children and young adults safer.
“All kids deserve to go to school in safety and not be scared that they are going to die at school,” she said.
While walkouts and rallies create awareness and drive a social agenda, O’brien is also keenly focused on getting her peers to do something even more powerful.
“They can walk out and march and protest all they want but nothing will happen if they don’t go out and vote for themselves,” she said.
Stephen O’Brien, 68, (no relation to student Kelly O’Brien) was an English teacher and athletic coach at Bethel Regional High School on the day 15-year-old Ramsey, a student of O’Brien’s with a troubled past and the target of bullies, came into school armed and angry.
Ramsey fatally shot Josh Palacios, a 15-year-old basketball player, and principal Ron Edwards, a good friend of O’Brien’s. A Navy veteran and a volunteer firefighter, O’Brien provided first aid to the injured before medics arrived. His son, a seventh grader at the school at the time, escaped with other students by jumping out a second story window.
In the years since ’97, every school shooting, every mass shooting, has brought back memories for O’Brien.
“How do you respond when your friends and colleagues are shot and killed? That’s not just something that goes away. It’s always there,” O’Brien said.
“I was in the Navy. I never heard a shot fired in anger until I was teaching at Bethel high school. At one point in my life I was prepared for that but I just never expected to experience that in a high school setting.”
O’brien eventually moved away from Bethel and retired from teaching. He now lives in Palmer, a community about 45 minutes north of Anchorage.
Like many individuals in Alaska, O’brien supports the use of firearms for hunting. But he feels some weapons offer far more firepower than necessary.
“I really don’t understand people who feel that they have to have a semi-automatic weapon. It’s not really an effective hunting weapon. It’s really a gun that’s designed to kill. It’s what we would call a ‘street sweeper.’ You could clear a street with that gun. I think that only people who are trained in its use should even have one.”
Twenty-one years ago after the Ramsey shooting, the Bethel school district brought counselors in to help students and teachers cope with the trauma. O’brien went to two sessions. More than two decades later, he’s still thinking about the shooting and the what ifs:
What might have happened if he’d been standing in the hallway instead of a classroom? What would he have done had he encountered the shooter? Could lives have been saved? Could he have been killed?
It’s the loop of an internal voice he’s never been able to quiet: ”What if…?”
Watching a generation of young people who have grown up with school shootings and gun violence throughout their lifetimes, he said, brings both heartache and pride.
“I think it’s a travesty that students have to walk out of schools in order to protest their fear about getting shot,” he said. “As adults we are supposed to provide a safe learning environment for students. It breaks my heart to think about how we have failed them. They have a right to grow up and go to school and get married and have babies and raise families.
And yet, he added, “As a teacher it makes me proud to see them exercising their constitutional right to speak out and to express themselves.”