Ben Loebker is showcasing one of his customized assault rifles during a gun show. (Photo by Keith Roysdon)

It seems there’s little common ground in the United States today. There’s a divide between rural and urban and between gun owners and advocates of gun control and gun safety laws. But could gun ownership, one of the nation’s most divisive issues, actually provide common ground for Americans who are deeply divided on politics and culture?

Is there such a thing as common ground these days? 

Yes, and Heather Hilbert just might live on that common ground. The suburban Indiana mom grew up in a house without guns. When she got married, her husband – from Centerville, a town of about 2,500 in Wayne County, Indiana – brought to the household a background typical of rural America: his family owned guns for hunting, target shooting, and home defense.

Now Hilbert is a gun owner. She’s also an officer of the Indiana chapter of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense, a national activist organization that advocates measures that protect people from gun violence.

Heather Hilbert at the shooting range. (Photo by Keith Roysdon)

“We have a lot more similarities than we do differences,” Hilbert said when asked about rural, suburban, and urban Americans. “It’s less about geography than the culture in which we were raised.”

Ben Loebker is less optimistic about finding common ground between rural people and urban and suburban denizens – particularly when it comes to guns.

A resident of Hidden Valley, a private residential community of about 5,000 in rural southeastern Indiana near the Ohio state line, Loebker grew up in Kentucky and is a real estate broker who assembles and sells customized firearms, including the AR-15 rifle, at gun shows around the Midwest.

Although he only became a gun dealer in the past few years, he’s a home-based firearms manufacturer and an enthusiast who hunts wild boars in Florida.

He’s also a believer in guns to protect himself from what he believes will be dark days ahead.

“I used to laugh at people that said there will be a civil war,” Loebker said in an interview. “I don’t laugh anymore, because I think that will be a real possibility.”

Loebker said distrust in government motivates rural gun owners. “They’re willing to die for those guns. They won’t turn them in.”

Over the years, study after study has shown that people in rural communities have differing beliefs about guns and gun ownership than people in more metropolitan areas. 

A 2017 Pew Research Center survey showed that rural residents were far more likely to own guns than those in suburban or urban areas. And they felt strongly about guns. 

In the wall between rural and urban and between red and blue, guns are simultaneously the most likely and least likely hinge on which any door in the wall might swing.

Change or Control?

On April 21, 2022, the New England Journal of Medicine published a research letter noting that in 2020, guns became the leading cause of death among children and teens. Guns killed more young people than vehicle crashes, cancer, or drug overdoses, the publication said.

A reasonable person would think the deaths of children would be enough to bring people to common ground. 

But grim moments in our history, from big cities to small towns to isolated farms in the countryside, have not motivated that move.

“Over the years since Columbine and Sandy Hook, there’s been a general sense in America that when that happened at Sandy Hook, we thought things would change,” Hilbert said in reference to the 2012 mass shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, in which a gunman killed 26, most of them children.

Hilbert noted that change has yet to come.

“That’s been a very slow-moving train,” she said. “It hasn’t happened the way a lot of us hoped.”

Kirk Freeman, an attorney in Lafayette, Indiana, thinks he knows why: It’s because of a distrust of government. 

“What motivates people isn’t sex or food,” he said. “What motivates humanity is telling each other what to do.” 

“I’m not into the government holding guns to peoples’ heads,” added Freeman, who grew up on his uncle’s cattle ranch in rural Indiana, “shooting varmints for pay.” Now he divides his time between his work as a defense attorney, his service on the board of the Indiana State Rifle Association, and as a continuing legal education teacher for the Indiana Public Defender Council.

“People want to see more aggressive expansion of our civil rights,” he said, adding he’s in favor of tax deductions for gun training, ammunition, and firearms safes. 

In the latter respect, he’s on common ground with Moms Demand members like Hilbert. 

“When we started a family, he had all these firearms we began storing in our shared space,” she said. “I said I can’t have these in our house without knowing how to use them, learning about safe storage, cleaning, and target shooting.”

The family has two gun safes, accessible through fingerprint ID technology. When Hilbert target shoots, she often shoots a Glock 40 handgun.

Hilbert said that when she talks with gun owners, her own gun ownership gives her credibility.

The rural-urban (and suburban) divide on the issue of guns is not easily crossed, though.

Dollars and Sense

Forty-six percent of adults who live in rural areas own a gun, a 2017 Pew Research Center survey showed. That’s compared to 28% of adults who live in the suburbs and 19% who live in urban areas.

Of the rural gun owners, 75% said they owned more than one gun, compared with 48% of urban gun owners. Personal and home protection was the most common reason gun owners in both areas cited for owning a gun, but nearly half of those in rural areas also said they had a gun for hunting.

Eight in ten rural gun owners said the right to own guns was essential to their personal sense of freedom. 

Pew’s survey showed that rural gun owners were more likely to own or have access to guns at an early age. 

Loebker said that he wasn’t exposed to guns in his younger days and first owned a gun at age 56. He has four guns, including a shotgun and a handgun, but some of his friends and customers have 30 guns, including handguns and AR-15s.

At a February 2022 gun show in Muncie, Indiana, Loebker showed a variety of his designed and customized firearms, including a red, white, and blue shotgun named after Captain America. 

“Gun shows are our bread and butter now,” he said in an interview. “From January to summer, that’s the busiest time in gun shows. We had a crazy good run in March. $50,000 (in sales) in three shows.”

An allegedly original Nazi flag was for sale by another vendor at the gun show Loebker attended to showcase his customized guns. (Photo by Keith Roysdon)

The gun show where Loebker sold his firearms was mostly devoted to guns, but merchants sold other items. One table displayed a Nazi flag labeled as an original. The price on the flag was $850.

Armor-piercing ammunition, survivalist food supplies, and anti-Joe Biden apparel were sold that read, “Buck Fiden” and “FJB.” One vendor sold “Trump 2024” flags. The sellers of the anti-Biden and pro-Trump merchandise did not return calls and emails seeking interviews for this article.

Guns as a Symbol

“Things have changed so much,” said Kathy Ruark, an Indiana resident. “I grew up in southern Indiana, out in the country, in a house full of guns. I had a little rifle when I was young. My dad liked to go hunting and I liked to target shoot.

“But those guns weren’t used for anything else, and they were put away,” she said. “I know I couldn’t have gotten hold of one when my parents weren’t around. Now it seems like guns have become more than something to use for sport or hunting or collecting. 

“They’re a symbol for some people,” Ruark added.

Ruark, who is a member of the Indiana Moms Demand group, said she wasn’t certain why gun ownership was now so politically charged, especially in rural areas like where she grew up.

“I do know that in rural areas, the rate of suicide by firearm is more than in urban areas. A lot of people associate guns and gun violence with urban areas, but white Americans have the highest rate of suicide by gun.

“If a gun is easily accessible in a moment of crisis, it’s much more likely to be lethal.” That’s why Moms Demand supports safe storage of guns and ammunition, Ruark said. 

Among the platforms of Moms Demand are helping pass gun sense policies, advocating responsible gun storage, disarming domestic abusers, and enacting extreme risk/red flag laws, which “help family members and law enforcement to temporarily limit a person’s access to guns if they’ve proven to be a danger to themselves or others,” according to the group, which has 8 million supporters and chapters in every state. 

The group joined with law enforcement groups, including the Indiana State Police, to urge the Indiana Legislature to kill a bill to do away with gun permits. Instead, legislators passed the bill, which becomes law in effect this summer.

“Last year, 6,000 people in Indiana were denied a gun permit,” Hilbert said. “Now that we are not going to have any type of permitting system, that’s 6,000 people walking the streets who will now have access and the ability to buy firearms.

“After another deadly weekend across the state from gun violence, in small towns and large cities, I am reminded that gun violence has no political affiliation. It’s happening to all age groups, in all size towns, to both sexes, to all socioeconomic groups and races,” she added.

Hilbert said that, ultimately, she feels it matters less where you grew up, in a rural area or city or suburbs, than the way you were raised.

“We have volunteers from rural areas who write their legislators,” she said about Moms Demand. “I don’t know how much I would separate urban and rural areas (regarding their beliefs about guns) as I would say it’s how they were brought up.

“We have a lot more similarities than we do differences. It’s less about geography than the culture in which we were raised.”

Keith Roysdon is an Indiana-based freelance writer who retired after 40 years in the newspaper business. 

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