I remember thinking, ‘They will never let this happen again!’ I was wrong.

30 years on, a survivor of a Kentucky school shooting is still waiting for a common sense approach to gun violence

February 12, 2024 5:30 am

Children participate in a March for Our Lives rally on March 24, 2018 in Round Rock, Texas. More than 800 March for Our Lives events, organized by survivors of the Parkland, Florida, school shooting, took place around the world to call for legislative action to address school safety and gun violence. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

On an ordinary day, in an ordinary town, in an ordinary school, in an ordinary class, an extraordinary, horrifying — and sadly, uniquely-American — tragedy occurred. 

I was 17 when my former classmate entered our English class on a cold, but sunny, Martin Luther King, Jr. Day and shot and killed our teacher and the school custodian. 

It was Jan. 18, 1993. I was a senior at East Carter High School in Grayson, Kentucky, and we were in school that day, a federal holiday, because our school district had only recently adopted the holiday, set to go into effect the following school year. 

On that January day, the shooter ended two lives, but he also significantly impacted the lives of countless others, robbing families of their loved ones, violating the safety and security of a school, and irrevocably changing our community. 

Let me say this plainly: Recovery from gun violence is hell. The hell of loss and the ripple effect of the impact can never be fully understood or explained. And for the 22 of us who witnessed the murders of our teacher and our custodian, our recovery is dramatically different from others on that day. 

We were sitting in what was supposed to be a safe place. It was years before the shooting at Columbine High School and long before school shootings or mass shootings were a constant drumbeat in the daily news like they are today. In an instant, our sense of safety and security was destroyed as we watched two people be shot and killed in front of us and our own lives threatened as we were held against our will for an extended period.

For me, the past 30 years have involved chronic PTSD, depression, anxiety, trauma-related physical disorders, and struggles with alternate ways to deal with trauma and anxiety. Add to this the impact on my family, friends, work colleagues and personal relationships.

Three decades later, I still cannot tell you what would have prevented the shooting and murder of two amazing people. What I can tell you is that there is a common sense approach to gun safety and gun violence prevention that does not preclude individual rights to own firearms and includes necessary protections for individuals’ rights to be free from gun violence.

On Feb. 15, 2024, Moms Demand Action will hold its annual Advocacy Day at the Kentucky state capitol in Frankfort. We will meet with legislators in the morning and host a rally at 1 p.m. in support of common-sense, legal protections from gun violence. I will be speaking at the rally, alongside Lt. Gov. Jacqueline Coleman, Devine Carama, director of One Lexington in the mayor’s office, and others.

I survived gun violence as a teenager, which means I have lived with the mental, emotional, spiritual and physical effects of this trauma all my adult life. I carry the memory of a gunman talking about how many bullets he had left, about how he did not have enough for all of us. 

The person I was ceased to exist on Jan. 18, 1993 at about 2:44 p.m. I do not want this life for anyone else.

In the hours after my school shooting, I remember thinking, “They will never let this happen again! There is no way they will ever let someone shoot anyone at a school again after this!”

I was wrong.

Kentucky scores near the bottom nationally when it comes to firearm laws and near the top in relation to incidents of gun violence and firearm-related murders. In fact, guns are the leading cause of death among children and teens in Kentucky and the United States. Gun violence costs Kentucky $9.6 billion each year, of which $183.4 million is paid by taxpayers. 

It has been 30 years. Being a survivor of gun violence was, and remains, hell, and I am no longer that naive kid who thought our lawmakers would keep this from happening again.

What I know now is that we all have the responsibility to do the work to prevent unnecessary tragedies like these in our communities.

As a father, uncle, husband, son, brother, family member and friend, I would love to see the thoughts of that naïve 17-year-old kid come true. 

Flowers, plush toys and wooden crosses are placed at a memorial dedicated to the victims of the mass shooting at Robb Elementary School on June 3, 2022 in Uvalde, Texas. Nineteen students and two teachers were killed on May 24 after an 18-year-old gunman opened fire inside the school. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)


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Nathan Thompson
Nathan Thompson

Nathan Thompson grew up in Eastern Kentucky, living and going to church in Lawrence County, and attending school in Carter County. He is a graduate of the University of Kentucky with bachelor’s and master’s degrees in social work. Nathan works with individuals and organizations that are addressing community issues to develop solutions. He lives in Lexington with his wife and son.