FORT KENT, Maine — It’s not often licensed gun dealers and museums are referenced in the same sentence, much less the same news story.
Earlier this week a reporter at The Washington Post did just that when he ran a nationwide, county-by-county statistical comparison on the numbers of federally licensed firearms dealers in relation to the number of museums and libraries.
Aroostook County, he found, is one of only two counties in New England where gun stores outnumber public museums and libraries.
“New England is museum and library country [where they] outnumber gun stores in all but two New England counties — rural Aroostook County in northern Maine and Hillsborough County in New Hampshire,” wrote Christopher Ingraham, the author of the article published in The Washington Post.
Maine has 504 federally licensed gun dealers, according to data from the federal bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and Explosives’ online list of federal firearms licensees.
Statewide, according to the online list of the Institute for Museum and Library Services, there are 828 museums and public libraries.
Only in Aroostook County do the gun dealers outnumber the museums — by a count of 52 to 51.
The inverse is true at the southern end of the state, where in museums and public libraries in Cumberland County far outnumber gun dealers by a count of 127 to 49.
For the purposes of data collection, according to Justin Grimes, statistician with the Institute for Museum and Library Services, the “museum” category includes “museums of all disciplines” including botanical gardens, historical societies, planetariums and aquariums.
Given the state’s demographics and spread-out population, the statistics come as no surprise to people such as David Trahan, executive director of the Sportsman’s’ Alliance of Maine.
“Hunting and shooting are deeply entrenched in the culture of Aroostook County,” Trahan said Thursday. “Guns and gun ownership are culturally deeper there than in the rest of the state.”
At the same time, Trahan said in no way are firearms and a love of culture mutually exclusive, a point Ingraham made in his article.
“[T]here’s no reason you can’t be a fan of both guns and museums (there is in fact a National Firearms Museum run by the NRA in Fairfax, Virginia),” Ingraham writes. “But viewed in relation to each other, guns and museums give some sense of a community’s values.”
Looking at those numbers, while a county such as Piscataquis does have more museums (22) than gun dealers (18), it also has the most gun dealers per person, with one for every 951 residents. At the same time, Piscataquis has more museums and libraries than any other county in the state based on population with, one for every 336 residents.
On the other end of the scale, Cumberland has the fewest licensed gun dealers by population with 5,825 residents for every dealer.
With a population of just over 70,000 spread over 6,800 square miles, Aroostook County is larger than Rhode lsland and Connecticut combined, so Trahan said it makes sense it has a relatively high number of gun dealers compared with museums and libraries.
“Keep in mind some of the holders of federal firearm licenses are individuals who just do repairs and want to sell or buy guns out of their homes,” Trahan said. “When you are in a remote area like Aroostook County and people have to travel for hours to get places, there is that opportunity [and] you will have people filling little niche markets for selling or repairing guns.”
That same geographic territory is why it also makes sense there are a large number of museums and libraries, with many communities supporting their own so residents do not have to drive for hours to larger towns or cities.
“Of course they are not mutually exclusive,” said Lise Pelletier, director of the Acadian Archives at the University of Maine at Fort Kent and board member with Maine Archives & Museums. “It is especially true if you consider the type of upbringing in Aroostook County that is growing up in nature and part of that nature is hunting.”
It can’t be all or nothing, Pelletier said, adding there would be something drastically missing from Maine’s overall landscape if there were no place for art, music or culture at the community level.
“We deeply need them,” she said. “And these things are not just for the elite.”
Pelletier and Trahan agreed that the numbers of community-based historical societies and cultural centers in Aroostook are just as indicative of the residents’ pride in, and support of, their heritage.
“I sit on the Maine Acadian Heritage Council board of directors,” Pelletier said. “I see that level of enthusiasm all the time.”
Trahan, a former state representative and senator from Waldoboro, said the statistics appear appropriate based on the locations.
In coastal Knox County, for example, an area not known for hunting opportunities but where tourists flock by the thousands every summer, it makes sense there would be 51 museums and libraries in comparison to 13 gun dealers.
“I’m not at all surprised to see those numbers,” he said. “They get the traffic that can support a large number of museums in a small area.”
“The people of Maine clearly have a desire for both,” Pelletier said. “It is not a case of all or nothing.”