For many rural residents of New Hampshire, owning a gun is not a political statement; it’s a tool, or a form of recreation. Even for some non-gun-owning neighbors, the idea that others have guns for hunting or target shooting is pretty non-controversial. And what’s more, the data available indicate that in New Hampshire that rural gun-culture only seems to be growing.
By census data, about forty percent of New Hampshire’s population lives in rural areas, versus New England as a whole where 80 percent live in cities. People in rural areas are 60 percent more likely to own a gun. This is perhaps because of the prevalence of hunting. Last year more than 46,000 New Hampshire residents registered to hunt with fire-arms; that’s number that’s held more or less steady over the last six
That means there’s plenty of people like Jeff Zeigler, who grew up hunting in rural Pennsylvania before moving to New Hampshire. He now lives in Center Harbor and hunts regularly.
“One of the things I’ve always loved about the outdoors, you can have a day where you go out and you might not see anything,” he says, “or you have a day go out and you might see a fisher-cat chasing a rabbit, or I’ve seen hawks come down and take chipmunks and snakes.”
Zeigler keeps his weapons safe: ammunition and guns locked separately. He thinks that more people ought to learn about guns and gun-safety the way he did, from his family at an early age, so that they understand the responsibility in their hands.
“My son’s four-and-a-half, he’s starting to get to the age where I’m thinking I’d like to get him into it,” Zeigler explains, “My mind-set is that if I teach my son the right way, a fire would come out that my son would actually know to take the action on it and make sure that it was unloaded.”
Rural Growth Outstripping Urban
But of course, there’s a substantial chunk of New Hampshire residents who own no gun. Like Nancy Chaddock who lives on about 7.5 acres up on a hill in Hill, New Hampshire. She grew up outside of Boston, and does not own a gun.
“The most I remember as a kid was you know, cowboys and Indians and that sort of thing,” she says, “we had robberies in my neighborhood but it never entered my mind that we should buy a gun to protect my home.”
Chaddock says she’ll often hear that distant, syncopated pop of a neighbor target shooting, and for the most part it doesn’t worry her that the folks around her have guns.
She says she thinks it’s such a natural part of people’s lives here. “I do stay out of the woods at the height of the hunting season,” she adds as a qualifier, “You never know who’s going to be out there with a gun. So that makes me nervous.”
The General Social Survey has been doing polling on gun ownership since 1973. The survey shows a slow, but certain, decline in the number of households owning firearms over the past 30 years. There’s a lot of speculation as to why: fewer hunters, a generation that hasn’t lived through the draft – but perhaps the most convincing has been a slow move away from rural areas, into cities.
In New Hampshire there’s not much data on gun ownership, but the UNH survey center has asked about it
twice, in 2002 and last week. According to those polls, gun ownership in New Hampshire has jumped up by about 5 percentage points. And according to UNH Demographer Ken Johnson, New Hampshire is also bucking another national trend. From 2000 to 2010 the state’s rural population grew faster than that of its cities.
Help Is a Ways Away
Sandwich, by area, is the third largest town in the state. It has 200 miles of roads, many of them dirt. From the police station to the town’s Northern extreme is a 25 minute drive. Rod Weinberg, a retired science teacher, originally from North Carolina who lives near Center Sandwich, tells what spurred him to purchase a fire-arm.
“All of the sudden, I thought I heard the door close, and there was two people that walked up the steps right into the hallway and it was like: what are they doing there?” he tells in an interview at his home.
The couple that walked through Weinberg’s front door twenty years ago was a couple of camp counselors looking for a lost hiker, but they got Weinberg thinking. He probably lives about five minutes from the police station, but in a town with so much area and just one officer on duty at a time…
Weinberg says at the time he thought: What would happen if three motorcycles pulled up outside or something? What do I have to defend us?
Now, Weinberg says has several handguns and a few rifles that he keeps under lock and key. This brings us to a National trend that probably does hold for New Hampshire: the number of guns in country has jumped from 192 million to 310 million from 1994 to 2009. And if fewer people are gun owners, that means the gun owners we do have – many of them rural – own more guns.
Sandwich’s local police chief, Doug Wyman, says widespread gun-ownership does make his job more complicated. On patrol, he assumes everyone could be armed; he says when there’s a conflict and both parties have a gun it can be hard to tell who’s the quote “bad-guy”; and he says when guns are around and tempers flare it can be a bad mix.
But even so Wyman acknowledges that in small towns, the police can’t be everywhere at once, and as long as guns exist, some criminals will have them. “Criminals are getting creative,” he says, “Not that we’ve had it here in sandwich but we’ve had reports in the recent years of people hiking in the White Mountains and being robbed at gunpoint by people on the trails.”
Any effort to reduce gun violence will be worked out mostly by urban thinkers, but in rural areas people use guns in very different ways. So what would be a good law? I asked Chief Wyman.
He wasn’t sure either, but he says “it’s something that really needs to be balanced and it needs to be well thought. It really needs to be debated. It really needs to be vetted.” Whatever those urban thinkers come up with, if it gets passed rural gun-owners will have to live with it.
But there was one spot of agreement between everyone who spoke in this story. They all think guns shouldn’t make their way into the hands of convicted criminals. The UNH poll last week found 84 percent of New Hampshire residents strongly favored background checks to avoid such a scenario; even for purchases made at gun shows.