Two students were killed and 18 more injured in a January school shooting in western Kentucky. Since the Columbine shootings happened in 1999 — which was, in a way, a turning point for such gun violence in the national conscience — more than 187,000 students have been affected by gun violence in their schools, according to a March report by The Washington Post.
The gun control debate might be at its highest point ever in America, with seemingly half the nation calling for an end to certain types of assault weapons, and the other half arguing that gun ownership is an inherently American right.
But incidents of gun violence go back a long, long way in national history. Interestingly, the first high-profile school shooting, the first one to gain some measure of national attention, happened in Louisville in 1853 at Louisville High School.
Hans Klis, a New York-based freelance writer who originally hails from the Netherlands, is on a research tour that began in Atlanta and will take him to Chicago as part of a process of writing a book on gun violence and the gun culture in America.
On Monday, June 11, he visited Cave Hill Cemetery and met with a local historian to learn more about the crime and the Kentucky culture of the day.
“In Europe, people see the headlines of a school shooting and say, ‘Why don’t they just take the guns away?’” Klis said. “In the United States, it’s more complex than that.”
He sees a shift in the general perception happening now — “a moment in time,” he calls it — and is investigating the culture and how it has evolved, as well as where it is going. He became even more acutely interested in the gun control issue two years ago when he became a father.
“I was getting involved in this debate in a very different way” after his child was born, he said. “You think about Sandy Hook and — not that it will happen, but the fact there is a risk for something happening is a thought.”
The original murder happened because Principal William H.G. Butler had used corporal punishment to discipline the younger brother of the killer; big brother Matthews F. Ward, who was in his late 20s, came to the school with two handguns to confront Butler about the perceived unfair treatment of 15-year-old William Ward.
Open carry was the law then — rural people, in particular, carried guns regularly because of the threat of wildlife attacks, be it a rattlesnake or a bear. Acquiring a weapon was easy because it was not regulated, mostly because the problem of such shootings in places like schools was foreign.
The Ward family was one of Louisville’s wealthiest, most affluent families, and not only had the Ward children been known to be problematic in the public schools, but also Matt Ward had previously confronted another teacher regarding punishment of a younger sibling, paralleling modern warning signs — signs that apparently went unheeded.
Butler had allegedly whipped William for telling a lie, and the older Ward brother demanded an apology from the well-liked principal, who was from Indiana. When Butler refused, a scuffle took place and Ward shot Butler, killing him.
The elder Ward was indicted for murder, and William indicted as an accessory.
The Ward family not only defended their sons, they appealed to have the ensuing trial moved to Hardin County, and it took place in Elizabethtown. The Wards hired a large and impressive team of lawyers, including future U.S. Sen. John J. Crittenden. His handling of the trial prompted the jury to declare the Wards not guilty, raising outrage in Louisville and, literally, across the country.
Local historian Shawn Murtagh, who has researched the case extensively, said she believes the rural jury simply was intimidated by the wealth and powerful attorneys.
“By any common sense,” Murtagh said, “he’s a cold-blooded murderer. But when you pull in that many big guns — no pun intended — that says something.”
The result of the shocking verdict, which many believed was solely due to the Wards’ place in Louisville’s upper class, was an angry mob attempting to burn down the family home and a riot, resulting in resolutions denouncing the verdict and demanding Ward and his brother leave the city.
There was no call for gun control, no call for armed guards at schools, no suggestion to arm teachers.
“I don’t think they perceived this as a school issue,” Murtagh said.
It was an isolated incident; the outcry then was about a perceived injustice. The story of a shooting in America today is a much more complex concept, in part because of new attitudes toward gun ownership and carry laws. The frequency of school shootings seems to be bringing those complexities out in new ways.
Klis’ research and the resulting book — he is publishing articles on the topic along the way and plans to create an online presence to further investigate the gun control debate in America — is something he hopes will, at the very least, lead to understanding.
“It is more or less to educate people in Europe and the Netherlands and in Belgium,” Klis said, “to go past those stereotypes of ‘gun-toting Americans’ and really educate them.”
In the end, the elder Ward did leave Louisville. He relocated to Louisiana and, ironically, was later shot and killed by a Confederate soldier who mistook the blue-clad Ward for a Union soldier. He is buried in Louisville just a few hundred feet from where Butler is buried.