A Western town says ‘no’ to guns in schools

School shootings raise a question that once seemed settled in Mancos, Colorado.

 

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


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, Colorado, 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 last 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, New Mexico, 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.

An American flag on the fence of a house in Mancos, Colorado.

“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.”

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].

High Country News Classifieds
  • DEVELOPMENT COORDINATOR
    Western Resource Advocates (WRA) seeks a friendly, detail-oriented, and self-motivated Development Coordinator to provide administrative support to the Development department. This position will report to...
  • FIELD ORGANIZER, MONTANA
    Help Northern Plains Resource Council protect Montana's water quality, family farms and ranches, & unique quality of life. Work hard, meet good people, make the...
  • FOR SALE
    Successful llama trekking business with Yellowstone National Park concession for sale! A fun and enriching business opportunity of a lifetime! Call 406-580-5954
  • ALBUQUERQUE VACATION HOME
    Centrally located. One bed, one bath, lovely outdoor patio, well-stocked kitchen.
  • NEW AGRARIAN PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    Quivira (www.quiviracoaltion.org), a Santa Fe-based nonprofit that aims to shift current practices of agriculture and land stewardship to those that produce good food, support meaningful...
  • SPECTACULAR SCENIC MOUNTAIN VIEW HOME BUILDING SITE
    Located on top of Sugarloaf Mtn. 5 mi W of downtown Colorado Springs, CO. $80,000.
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    opportunity in Eugene, Oregon! To learn more and to apply, visit our website at www.bufordpark.org.
  • FUNDRAISING & OUTREACH COORDINATOR
    Does the prospect of working to protect one of the Southwest's last remaining flowing rivers get you excited? Join the team at Friends of the...
  • DIGITAL ENGAGEMENT SPECIALIST
    Position Summary Western Resource Advocates (WRA) seeks a dynamic, organized, and creative Digital Engagement Specialist to be an essential part of our growing Communications Team....
  • NORTH IDAHO FIELD REPRESENTATIVE
    Founded by sportsmen and women 1936, the Idaho Wildlife Federation (IWF) is a statewide nonprofit dedicated to conserving and enhancing Idaho's natural resources, wildlife, habitat,...
  • SMALL HISTORICAL FARM FOR SALE - NEW MEXICO
    23-acres, adobe home, shop, barn, gardens, pasture, orchard. https://www.zillow.com/homes/222-Calle-Del-Norte,-Monticello,-Nm_rb/ or call 575-743-0135.
  • NEW MEXICO GILA NATIONAL FOREST HORSE RANCH
    43 acres in the Gila National Forest. Horse facility, custom home. Year round outdoor living. REDUCED to: $1.17 MM 575-536-3109
  • GRANTS MANAGER AND EDITOR
    Are you a strong communicator who excels at building relationships, writing winning grant proposals, and staying organized? You sound like a good fit for our...
  • REPORTER
    The Wallowa County Chieftain, has an opening for a reporter. Experience with and understanding of editorial photography also required. Journalism degree or equivalent, an understanding...
  • 2017 JOHN DEERE LAWN MOWER Z930R
    15 hours on it, 3 years warranty, 22,5 HP, $1600 Sale price. Contact: [email protected]
  • OWN YOUR OWN CANYON - 1400 SF STRAW-BALE ECO-HOME ON 80 ACRES - 3 HOURS FROM L.A.
    1400 sf of habitable space in a custom-designed eco-home created and completed by a published L.A. architect in 1997-99. Nestled within its own 80-acre mountain...
  • HEAD BREAD/PASTRY BAKER AND ASSISTANT POSITIONS
    Hiring Part/Full time for Summer Season - entry level & experienced positions. Year round employment for optimal candidates. Pay DOE.
  • EVERLAND MOUNTAIN RETREAT
    Everland Mountain Retreat includes 318 mountaintop acres with a 3,200 square foot lodge and two smaller homes. Endless vistas of the Appalachian mountains, open skies,...
  • COUNTRY ESTATE NEAR KINGS CANYON AND SEQUOIA PARKS
    Spectacular views of snowcapped Sierras. 15 miles from Kings Canyon/Sequoia Parks. 47 acres with 2 homes/75' pool/gym/patios/gardens. 1670 sq.ft. main home has 3 bdrm/1 bath....
  • GILA NATIONAL FOREST NEW MEXICO
    Beautiful off-the-grid passive solar near the CDT. 9.4 acres, north of Silver City. Sam, 575.388.1921