Throughout this week’s series on guns, we’ve heard from residents of rural New Hampshire who think of firearms as a tool.
That’s a perspective you’ll hear and see in the North Country town of Colebrook, where you can pick up a firearm and home improvement tools in the same store.
“Guns and hunting aspect is only a part of the business," explains Phil Ducret, who has owned and operated Ducret's Sporting Goods on Colebrook's Main Street since 1985. "Of course we have a full line of fishing tackle and so forth as well as paint and stains, that’s a good share of our business as well.”
Ducret is one of several people who told us about the comfort level people have with firearms in this part of the state. Another is writer and Union Leader columnist John Harrigan.
About a year ago, Harrigan and three friends stopped to buy groceries, liquor and other supplies before heading to a camp in the country. They were all wearing sidearms. For them, and for the store employees, it was no big deal.
“I never think about my guns," Harrigan says. "In fact, I hadn’t thought about my guns until you called me for this story.”
Of course, a lot of people have been thinking about guns since the killings in Newtown Connecticut. The debate over what conclusions to draw from the tragedy has been emotional and sometimes fierce. It’s one reason we wanted to look especially at the reaction in Colebrook – a town that itself was the site of a shooting tragedy, in August of 1997.
The shootings began at the local grocery store - two state troopers killed just a few feet from Ducret’s Sporting Goods. Then, a mile down the road, more violence at the offices of the Colebrook News and Sentinel, run by John Harrigan. Harrigan’s longtime friend and romantic partner was killed; she was shot in the back. The paper’s editor died trying to take the shooter’s rifle.
Harrigan famously led the rest of the Colebrook News and Sentinel staff in publishing the newspaper, even as their loved ones lay dead nearby. In the cover story he described “a newspaper and a police fraternity in shock and a community stunned to its core.”
But according to John Harrigan, unlike after the Newtown shooting, gun control wasn’t a big part of the conversation after the 1997 tragedy in Colebrook. Harrigan says people in town think of the tragedy not as an example of the danger of guns, but as an anomaly - like being hit by "space debris."
“That kind of thing is going to hit some town," Harrigan says. "That [the 1997 shooting] was simply our turn, and we dealt with it as best we could. The scars will never, ever heal from that… and there’s little reference made to it. I didn’t hear any when Newtown happened. We felt horrible for Newtown, but it was that town’s turn, it was just the luck, or unluck of the space debris.”
Phil Ducret sells firearms for a living, so it’s no surprise that he still supports gun use. But he explains that even after the tragedy, people in Colebrook have not looked at guns through the lens of gun violence. Asking about whether shootings change the way people view guns - well, he says, that reveals more about the person asking the question, than the community they’re asking about.
“I don't think [residents] draw any parallels" between Colebrook and Newtown, Ducret explains, "other than the fact that tragedies occur... There was an initial reaction - people were thinking well, now that it’s happened here, what if it happens again? Can I be more prepared, if you will? Things evened out again, and went back to normal again. I didn’t see a huge jump in my sales.”
But Ducret also admits attitudes about guns in Colebrook may be shifting in some respects – but he says it’s not because of the killings in 1997, or because of recent tragedies elsewhere. Instead, he says, the change is about demographics.
Ducret says in decades past, people could walk through town carrying a rifle or a handgun without raising an eye. “Now when somebody goes down the street with a sidearm, it definitely attracts attention because we’ve got a lot of people who’ve moved into the area [who are] not used to seeing guns out in the open outside of law enforcement.
"That’s changing as a mindset, but they still view gun ownership as a right, and as nothing that’s going to obviously make somebody more prone to commit a crime. I don’t think that’s in the mindset of people in the state as a whole.”
Columnist John Harrigan agrees that Colebrook hasn’t changed its feelings about guns much because of what happened in 1997 – but as long as there is gun violence, people will keep asking if it has.
“It’s never gonna leave us," he says. "There’s no such thing as closure - that’s certainly a hackneyed, overused term. But I think it’s put behind us, and I don’t think people look at guns for the reason for that. It was some psycho, some deranged person who had access to guns.”
He adds: “I’m just sick of the whole subject, really – it comes up every time some wingnut, some lunatic does something horrible.”