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Gentrification changing attitudes toward guns in the West

A generation ago, had the school board in my small town scheduled a vote to potentially arm school staff and administrators, no one would have batted an eye.

Back then, students in Mancos, Colo., hung rifles in trucks for hunting before and after school. Guns were in the building; as recently as 1998, boys and girls took hunter safety classes in the middle school. When he was a teacher, now-school Superintendent Brian Hanson says he bought a gun from a student’s parent during math class.

But last month, the community showed up fraught and in force at the usually mundane meeting of the school board to say “No” to guns in schools. The school board voted 4-1 not to move forward on arming staff. Mancos, population 1,460, has seen an influx of new homebuyers in recent decades. And guns and gentrification, it seems, do not mix.

The town motto is “Where the West Still Lives,” so is Mancos still “Western”? Will Western towns become culturally neutered if they refuse to accept guns in schools?

Arming school staff is a “stunningly rapid development,” said one Colorado public policy attorney, noting that the rural Colorado school districts of Dove Creek, Fleming, Hanover and Aguilar have all allowed armed staff over the past few years. So, too, have schools in other Western states. In Utah, teachers are free to arm themselves.

Here, the debate was spurred by recent school tragedies, especially the one in Aztec, N.M., just 63 miles away, where two students died. A day before and a day after the vote, there were more school shootings. The Mancos vote, in fact, was less lopsided than it appeared. Three board members said they were “on the fence,” but ultimately agreed with the anti-gun crowd.

In Aguilar, population 473, Superintendent Stacy Houser carries a handgun. A secretary, a principal and a teacher there do, too.

“It’s been very well received in our community,” said Houser. “Students say to me, ‘I feel so much safer.’ ”

Research and policy experts, however, say arming staff is rife with risk. The National Education Association found that more than two-thirds of the teachers who responded to a survey reject the idea. “It’s a bad idea that won’t go away,” read one NEA headline.

“More guns, more death,” said a woman at the Mancos school board meeting. She’s right. Most Western states are more heavily armed and more violent than, say, New England states. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Alaska has the highest death rate for gun violence. Colorado, Nevada, Arizona, Wyoming, Montana and New Mexico are all in the top 20. Folks in Massachusetts and Connecticut are about five times less likely to die from a gun-related death, according to the CDC.

Unlike the densely populated and generally wealthier towns on either coast, small Western towns have gun-friendly traditions and cultures. That cultural factor – combined with a lack of funding for school resource officers and a potentially longer response time from law enforcement officers in large rural counties – has swayed municipal decisions and made arming school staff more palatable to some.

But Mancos has become increasingly diverse; it is a bedroom community to Durango, the nearby, left-leaning mountain town of 18,000. “Our culture has changed. Not everybody’s comfortable with a gun, and that’s OK,” said Mancos school board president Blake Mitchell, who grew up in Mancos.

Some here still live agricultural lives. They raise cattle. They farm. Gun ownership for them is natural and necessary. But increasingly, there are new residents who like the idea of rural living as long as they can bring along decidedly less traditional Western, less rural attitudes:

• You don’t shoot a sick or injured animal to put it out of its misery. You have it euthanized.

• You don’t fill your freezer with the deer you shot last fall. You fill it with meat from the farmers market (if you eat meat at all).

• Squirrel guns may be OK. High-powered rifles and handguns are not.

The influx of new folks is why specialty shops succeed. It’s why we have a state-sanctioned Creative District that elevates community artists. It’s also why ranchers’ cattle drives and water rights conversations are increasingly frustrating.

“(Newcomers) think they want to live around cows, until they actually live around cows,” said one rancher.

The school board’s decision was influenced by newcomers’ attitudes, but it was swayed, too, by the promise of improved security with a forthcoming $25 million project to upgrade school facilities. In the near future, administrators will be able to lock down every door of every building with the push of a button or swipe of a smartphone.

So, is Mancos “Where the West Still Lives”? Guns and gentrification are as Western as open space and agriculture. All are elements of our culture and points of our conversations as we evolve and redefine ourselves as who we are. The answer, therefore, is decidedly “Yes.”

Maddy Butcher is a contributor to Writers on the Range, the opinion service of High Country News (hcn.org). She writes about the West in Mancos, Colo.

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