Feb 5, 2016 5:43 PM

Gun control not resonating as key issue in New Hampshire

The Associated Press

CONCORD (AP) — Charleston. San Bernardino. Roseburg, Oregon. With each mass shooting in the United States in the past year, a debate raged about whether gun-control measures were overdue to make Americans safe.

But not in New Hampshire.

The gun culture is alive and well here, and with a population overwhelmingly familiar with and comfortable with firearms, gun-control issues that have resonated across the nation barely register among voters getting ready for Tuesday's presidential primary.

"Most folks in New Hampshire, I don't want to call them pro-gun but they're comfortable with guns," said Wayne Lesperance, a professor of political science at the University of New Hampshire. The state is legendary for its strong libertarian streak, famously boasting "Live Free or Die" on its license plates.

Consider Kirk McNeil, the owner of a bar in Concord, who grew up in the Carolinas, spent a chunk of his adulthood in Michigan and has called New Hampshire home for the past seven years. His grandfather taught him how to shoot as a youngster with a shotgun in the backyard. He's carried on the tradition with his daughters, starting them with BB guns when they were in elementary school.

"I believe the first person responsible for my safety is me," he said.

But gun issues aren't something he's considering when deciding who will get his vote Tuesday. He thinks of it as more an issue for local or state politics than at the presidential level.

Brita Tirrell, a New Hampshire native and 34-year-old nurse from Concord, doesn't own a gun and has no interest in them.

"Am I into violence? Nope. But am I opposed to people having them for their protection? No," she said. Asked where she ranks it in her thinking about the primary, she said, "It's at the bottom of the list."

The issues that are front and center for her are education, the environment and labor issues such as the minimum wage.

Nearly half of New Hampshire's residents either own a firearm or live in a household where they are present.

An influx of new residents from outside the state has not led to a significant shift in its conservative political leanings. The legislature remains conservative and famously allows lawmakers to openly carry firearms (except on the chamber floor, where they must be concealed).

That's not to say that all gun control is off the table. Recent surveys show support for some narrowly targeted measures. A University of New Hampshire Survey Center poll last winter found strong bipartisan support in New Hampshire for preventing the mentally ill from buying guns.

A partisan divide emerged, however, when residents were asked whether gun-control laws in general should be more strict. Some 69 percent of Democrats said yes, compared to 24 percent of Republicans.

Still, the issue doesn't appear to be swaying voters as they consider who to vote for in Tuesday's presidential primaries.

David Paleologos, director of the Suffolk University Political Research Center, points to a recent poll that shows that Hillary Clinton's positions on gun control more closely mirror those of Democratic primary voters in New Hampshire, yet she still trails Bernie Sanders in polls. On the GOP side, it's not an issue that comes close to cracking the top three issues cited by voters: terrorism, the economy and illegal immigration.

Nationally, the debate has been largely driven by police-related shootings and mass shootings over the past year. But New Hampshire has been relatively untouched by such incidents, one of only five states in the country that did not have a mass shooting in that period. New Hampshire hovers below the national rate of firearms deaths of slightly more than 10 per 100,000.

Karen Sobiechowski, a former teacher and registered Republican voter, does not own a gun, but believes opposing gun rights in the Granite State is not going to win votes. A 55-year-old Manchester resident, she's undecided on who to vote for. But she feels the government is already too intrusive.

"This is New Hampshire, a Live Free or Die state," she said. "People do not like being told what they can or cannot do."


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