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Jim Kenyon: Rallying for Gun Safety

  • Valley News columnist Jim Kenyon in West Lebanon, N.H., on September 15, 2016. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to Geoff Hansen

Published: 3/20/2018 11:21:23 PM
Modified: 3/21/2018 2:15:59 PM

Ray Shannis gives three reasons why he’s organizing this Saturday’s March For Our Lives rally at Albert Bridge School in Brownsville: He once taught at the school, he became its principal and now he has school-aged grandchildren.

“I recognize how vulnerable schools can be,” Shannis, 71, told me. “Something needs to be done. I don’t want anything to happen here.”

March For Our Lives rallies are planned around the U.S. on Saturday, including at the Vermont Statehouse in Montpelier. They’re a follow-up to last week’s nationwide school walkouts that came in the wake of the Parkland, Fla., school shooting that killed 17 people, including 14 teenagers.

The Albert Bridge School event, which starts at 10 a.m., won’t make national news. The K-6 school has only 60 students, and West Windsor, which includes the village of Brownsville, has around 1,000 residents.

What is remarkable about what will probably be a tiny rally is where it will take place — in the sort of community that many people assume is immune to the “gun problem.” But Shannis and other longtime residents know all too well that gun violence is not just an urban problem.

Shannis arrived at ABS in 1969, a recent college grad from the Springfield, Mass., area. As the leaves fell during his first autumn at ABS, boys in the upper grades started to talk about deer hunting. I probably was one of them.

For those who grew up in West Windsor, the November rifle season was a bridge between Halloween and Christmas — a rite of passage that began with a hunter-safety course at the Grange Hall. I recall that the National Rifle Association was involved. But back then the NRA was more of a hunting organization than a front for gun and ammunition makers.

Shannis never took up hunting. The only gun he ever shot as a kid was a BB gun. “It was completely foreign to me,” he said. But he respected the community’s gun culture — and still does. “Guns can be fun for things like target practice, but it’s important that kids learn at an early age that they can also kill people,” he said.

Shannis was both teacher and principal when ABS squeezed eight grades into four classrooms. One of the boys in the lower grades was the son of a well-respected farming couple in town.

Nathan Spackman grew into a strapping teen who was elected captain of the 1985 football team at Windsor High School. But before his senior year, Spackman was arrested for DUI, which required him to give up his captainship. On Sept. 2, 1985, a few days before the first day of school, Spackman walked into Brownsville’s pub with a .223-caliber hunting rifle and demanded the bartender hand over a bottle of tequila.

Before the night was over, Spackman had driven a farm tractor through a police barricade, wrecking two cruisers, and fled to a vacant cottage in the village. In a 2½-hour standoff during which Spackman appeared to be both intoxicated and despondent, he repeatedly threatened to kill himself. After Spackman, 18, raised his rifle in the direction of troopers, he was shot and killed. A grand jury of 23 Windsor County residents later cleared the trooper who shot Spackman of any wrongdoing.

In 1999, West Windsor suffered another gun-related tragedy involving a teenager. Laird Stanard, 17, shot and killed his mother and fired a second shot that nearly hit his father at the family’s home off Blood Hill Road. He used a shotgun from the home’s gun cabinet. After serving a little over 15 years, Stanard was released from prison in 2015. The last I heard, the 35-year-old Stanard was living and working in Burlington.

“My daughter was in his class (at ABS),” said Peter Ferick. “What happened there has always stuck in the back of my mind.”

Ferick, 79, is helping Shannis put together Saturday’s rally. “I’m a gun owner,” he said, “and when I was in the Army everyone had a gun. It wasn’t a big thing. But Vermont has some of the most lax gun laws in the country.”

Which brings me back to my small hometown and its relationship with guns. In rural America, “guns are tools. We hunt with them,” Robert Leonard, an Iowa journalist, wrote in a recent New York Times op-ed.

That may be true, but in West Windsor, the March For Our Lives rally isn’t about snatching guns out of the hands of law-abiding citizens. It’s about forcing elected officials to take action to make schools and communities safer.

GunSense Vermont, for example, is pushing for universal background checks and other measures to keep guns away from people with mental illness and people whom authorities have reason to believe could be a threat to themselves or others.

When I sat down on Monday with Ferick and Shannis, a member of GunSense Vermont, we batted around a few ideas to pursue in the likely event that Saturday’s marches don’t move our spineless state and federal lawmakers to take on the gun lobby.

Promoting the use of trigger locks and storing firearms in locked gun safes inside homes came immediately to mind. Elementary schools could even take it upon themselves to teach gun safety.

The two gun-related deaths in West Windsor’s past are reminders of what can go wrong when troubled kids have easy access to firearms.

I don’t know if the measures we came up with will prevent future tragedies. Then again, we’ll never know until we try.

Jim Kenyon can be reached at

Valley News

24 Interchange Drive
West Lebanon, NH 03784


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