Residents in rural communities like Madison Twp. are known for two passions: hunting and fishing.
So it’s understandable that a large percentage of them own guns and fishing poles, said Butler County Sheriff Richard Jones. He said the county has issued 22,000 Conceal Carry Weapon permits since 2004.
“They like to carry firearms,” Jones said of county residents. “It’s OK to have guns.”
Guns, and in particular, gun safety, became a hot topic on Monday after James Austin Hancock, a 14-year-old Madison Jr./Sr. High School eighth-grader, allegedly brought a .380 caliber gun to school, then shot two classmates and injured two more in an act of violence that has sent “shock waves” through the small, close-knit Butler County community.
Jones said the teen suspect stole the gun from a relative, then brought it to school and pulled it out during the eighth-grade lunch period. Hancock was captured a short time later by the School Resource Officer Kent Hall outside the school.
Madison Superintendent Curtis Philpot understands a person’s right to carry a gun can be controversial, but he also realizes it’s his responsibility for the safety of the 1,600 students, teachers and staff in the district. Philpot said he owns a CCW permit, but because he spends most of his time in school, he doesn’t carry a weapon.
“School safety is everyone’ responsibility,” he told the Journal-News in an exclusive interview. “My message to parents: If you have a firearm in your house, lock them up. Lock them up. That’s all I ask. You’ve got one backpack. I got 1,600.”
Residents who spoke to this newspaper Thursday said safe, responsible gun ownership is commonplace and widely accepted in the township. Some said many homes in the township are surrounded by or near acres of fields and wooded areas where small animals, coyotes and deer can be a nuisance and at times destructive to gardens, flowers or crops making a gun a useful tool.
Mike Erter, manager at the Middletown Sportsmen’s Club, located a few miles from the school district, said the club has about 2,200 members and probably 200 are from Madison Twp. He isn’t surprise by the number of guns in the township of just over 8,600 people.
“Most of them hunt out here,” he said.
Erter said guns are perceived differently in rural communities. Residents there, because they were raised around firearms, aren’t intimidated by guns.
Still, he said, he was “totally shocked” when news of the school shooting quickly spread Monday.
“I never thought in a small community something like that would happen,” Erter said.
Pam Figley has lived in Madison Twp. for a quarter of a century. She and her husband own a rifle and a handgun mostly for self protection, but she said many other residents enjoy hunting and sport shooting.
“Guns are a part of living out here and people out here know how to handle them safely,” she said. “Everybody is safe with the guns out here.”
Guns are so ingrained in the culture of some rural communities that they are prizes at local fundraisers. In fact, a group of mothers in the township is holding a raffle to raise money for after-prom activities for Madison’s April 16 prom, and the grand prize is a gun.
Such fundraisers are not uncommon in the region, the Milton-Union High School athletic boosters club (in Miami County) raffled off a shot gun last January to raise money for its boy’s basketball team.
AJ Huff, a coordinator of communications for Madison Local Schools, said the raffle was not affiliated with the district and it was being conducted by a parent organization. She said the group also held a pie sale late last year and proceeds will help fund an after-prom.
She said the gun raffle was not approved by the district, thus she didn’t want to comment on the raffle.
Gary Gabbard, vice president of Edgewood City School District Board of Education, said in his rural district in St. Clair Twp., “guns are just a part of life out here.
“There’s no possible way that you can keep guns out of the hands of young students. There’s no possible way in this rural district we live in,” Gabbard said. “We have a lot of hunters in this district and most kids probably rabbit hunt, squirrel hunt or deer hunt at some point in their life. (Teaching) loved ones about safety with guns is the biggest thing, I think.”
Don Roberson, a third-generation owner of Roberson Sporting Goods on Germantown Road, called outdoor activities like fishing and hunting “a heritage here. They’re brought up around it.”
He doesn’t understand why a student — or any person — would bring a gun to school.
“Maybe that’s just the mindset of today’s youth,” he said. “It’s like, ‘Hurt me and I will hurt you bad.’ Listen, when I was his age I got into my share of fist fights, and I lost more than I won. I also had a pocket knife and I never thought for a minute about cutting somebody let alone shooting somebody.”
Roberson never figured he’d talk about a school shooting in Madison.
“It’s horrible,” he said. “It’s the society we are in and I hate being that generic about it.”
Roberson recalled a time when he was delivering a speech in class and his subject was trapshooting. So, as a freshman, he brought a Winchester gun to Middletown High School. It was 1974.
He walked into the main office carrying his unloaded gun and he was told to put it behind the principal’s door. He was allowed to get the gun when it was time for his speech.
“That would be unfathomable today,” he said. “That shows the time difference.”
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Staff writers Michael Clark, Andy Sedlak and Eric Schwartzberg contributed to this report.