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It's all part of the lore of the Wild West: men armed to the teeth ready to shoot it out with one another on Main Street at a moment's notice.  And it's an image, bolstered by Hollywood, that gun-lovers and the NRA are only too happy to cultivate, as they look to our romanticized view of the past to justify having virtually no gun-control laws today. But is that the way it really was in the Old West?

Not according to Katherine Benton-Cohen, history professor at Georgetown University.  

In an article she posted in Politico immediately after the Gabrielle Giffords' shooting in Tucson in January, 2011, she argues that many people have the lesson of Tombstone all wrong, that Tombstone was NOT a place of carefree gun usage and wild shootouts (except for the obvious one):

The irony ... is that Tombstone lawmakers in the 1880s did more to combat gun violence than the Arizona government does today.
For all the talk of the “Wild West,” the policymakers of 1880 Tombstone—and many other Western towns—were ardent supporters of gun control. When people now compare things to the “shootout at the OK Corral,” they mean vigilante violence by gunfire. But this is exactly what the Tombstone town council had been trying to avoid.

In late 1880, as regional violence ratcheted up, Tombstone strengthened its existing ban on concealed weapons to outlaw the carrying of any deadly weapons within the town limits. The Earps (who were Republicans) and Doc Holliday maintained that they were acting as law officers—not citizen vigilantes—when they shot their opponents. That is to say, they were sworn officers whose jobs included enforcement of Tombstone’s gun laws.

Adam Winkler, author of Gunfight: The Battle to Bear Arms in America, concurs:

Yet this is all based on a widely shared misunderstanding of the Wild West. Frontier towns -- places like Tombstone, Deadwood, and Dodge -- actually had the most restrictive gun control laws in the nation.

In fact, many of those same cities have far less burdensome gun control today then they did back in the 1800s.

Guns were obviously widespread on the frontier. Out in the untamed wilderness, you needed a gun to be safe from bandits, natives, and wildlife. In the cities and towns of the West, however, the law often prohibited people from toting their guns around. A visitor arriving in Wichita, Kansas in 1873, the heart of the Wild West era, would have seen signs declaring, "Leave Your Revolvers At Police Headquarters, and Get a Check."

A check? That's right. When you entered a frontier town, you were legally required to leave your guns at the stables on the outskirts of town or drop them off with the sheriff, who would give you a token in exchange. You checked your guns then like you'd check your overcoat today at a Boston restaurant in winter. Visitors were welcome, but their guns were not.

Though Hollywood is largely responsible for this erroneous image, a few filmmakers have given us a more realistic picture of how things really were. The opening scenes of Clint Eastwood's Unforgiven, for example, show a bunch of men riding into town having to leave their guns with the sheriff before being let in.

So, it's certainly ironic that gun-control laws would appear to be far more lax today than they were back then. Indeed, if the NRA existed back then, they would have been screaming 2nd Amendment rights the minute one of these uppity sheriffs presumed to confiscate these visitors' firearms.

Just know that, when gun advocates try to pull the old Wild West card on you, they have no idea what it is they're talking about.

Originally posted to Rolandz on Mon Jul 23, 2012 at 11:54 AM PDT.

Also republished by Daily Kos Classics.

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Comment Preferences

  •  Heck mnay of the John Wayne (12+ / 0-)

    westerns include checking your guns when you ride into town - Rio Bravo and El Dorado  come immediately to mind.

    •  tv westerns too (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      This was a plot device in many TV western episodes of the '50's - Maverick and Have Gun Will Travel come to mind.  Sometimes it served as a MacGuffin, sometimes it was  just a relatively unimportant feature of the episode.

    •  Miss Kitty's Saloon on Gunsmoke? (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      I remember that Marshal Matt Dillon (the young singer's parents must have liked that show) enforced the "check your gun" law, but just in case somebody forgot to do that, his friend (?) Miss Kitty had a sign banning guns from her saloon.  Of course, many episodes had story lines which depended on somebody violating both of those rules, but the characters who did were THE BAD GUYS, not the good guys.

      Reasonable restriction on who could carry guns and where they could carry them was just fine with white America until the Black Panthers cited the Second Amendment to carry THEIR guns to protect their people from racist police.  THEN the NRA got all upset; if those "uppity n*s" had guns, then EVERY WHITE MAN was almost obligated to have one to protect himself (and his woman) from the Black Panthers carrying guns.

    •  More need to educate (0+ / 0-)

      The more people that know the real history of guns in late 1800's Western society the better. They can, pardon the puns, shoot down any NRA goof that goes ballistic about 2nd Amendment infringments.

  •  Thank you, thank you, thank you... (8+ / 0-)

    For this diary.  It only stands to reason.  People came into town from the cattle drives, mining, etc. to blow off steam.  They want to hit the saloon and brothel.  If they are packing heat, they are liable to settle their disputes with a gun.  Any sheriff worth his salt would remove that variable from the equation.  

    'Osama Bin Ladien is still dead and GM is still alive' - Joe Biden "Dems kill terrorist. The GOP keeps them around as a boogeyman - so they can continue to steal."

    by RichM on Mon Jul 23, 2012 at 12:19:49 PM PDT

  •  I was thinking of that scene (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    halef, satanicpanic, john07801

    ...from Unforgiven the moment I saw your headline.

    GOP Agenda: Repeal 20th Century.

    by NormAl1792 on Mon Jul 23, 2012 at 12:21:51 PM PDT

  •  A well regulated militia (11+ / 0-)

    meaning government regulation... like requiring you check your guns with the local sheriff.

    "Do what you can with what you have where you are." - Teddy Roosevelt

    by Andrew C White on Mon Jul 23, 2012 at 12:22:31 PM PDT

    •  The "well regulated militia"... (0+ / 0-)

      That sentence refers to,  was the militias that men in the south were required to serve on, for the purpose of hunting down runaway slaves.  The State gov't didn't want to have to pay to arm or equip such militias,  thus they required that the men they pressed into service to hunt slaves,  have their own arms.

      Had the 2nd not been written,  the south feared,  their ability to continue the slave hunts would be ended,  so the 2nd had to be written to assure them that the slave hunts would be allowed to continue.

  •  There is so much wrong with this Diary (0+ / 0-) actually made me smile. It's a childlike perspective.

    Guns were obviously widespread on the frontier. Out in the untamed wilderness, you needed a gun to be safe from bandits, natives, and wildlife.
    As far as the American psyche goes -- we stole this land at gunpoint, killing as many Native Americans as we could find -- and chaining those we didn't kill behind barbed wire fences on the shitiest patches of land that this nation has to offer. It made us very rich.

    From this, we learned an important lesson. You get what you want by shooting people. The United States does this all over the world, right this very minute. That's who we are. The people pulling the triggers are our "heros."

    We are even one of the very few nations in the world that regularly kill their own people (via capital punishment) which cheapens human life in the minds of the citizens. And this perpetuates the lust for murder.

    Gun control is off the table for Americans. The very idea causes a mass identity crisis and an explosion of paranoia across the land.

    •  What is your point? You do not contradict any of (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      wilderness voice, trumpeter

      the points the diarist makes.

      He who can make you believe absurdities, can make you commit atrocities.

      by Sophie Amrain on Mon Jul 23, 2012 at 01:19:21 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  In that the points are derived from cowboy movies (0+ / 0-)

        ...well... it's hard not to smile.

        As for my point, it's the flip side of the same coin, and I thought I was pretty clear.

        The Diarist makes the argument that gun control existed as demonstrated by the cowboy movie star who rode into to town, hitched his horse, and handed his gun over as he sauntered into the saloon. Thus, if iwe had gun control once, it could happen again.

        I presented a narrative of points that argue why it would be impossible to impose gun control laws in the America we live in today. It would cause a psychic crisis in the men folk and may result in total social chaos.

        What is your point?

        •  The point is you failed to make yours (0+ / 0-)

          Your point was that there was "So much wrong with this diary" yet you failed to support your point with what you wrote. You did not illustrate anything that was wrong with this diary. In fact, what you did write reads like a disconnected series of facts that do not add up to any point whatsoever.

          The point you make in the above comment, "We could not have gun control now," while certainly clearer, is similarly not supported by what you wrote. You did not present a coherent narrative that argues that gun control would cause a psychic crisis in men-folk.

          Sorry, no insult intended, just calling it like I see it. Hope this helps you make your points better in the future.

        •  Nothing you said contradicted (0+ / 0-)

          anything the diarist said.  Don't be an ass and say there is "so much wrong" with the diary if you're not going to explain what it supposedly got wrong and instead you're just going to agree with it.

      •  Actually, the commenter reinforces them. (0+ / 0-)

        ...After all, if you're living in occupied territory, and the original inhabitants are still around -- as were the native Americans in those days -- well, you know that there's a large population of people out there who wouldn't think twice about killing you if they found you alone and unarmed.  Or even alone and armed.  

  •  Suburbia - too dumb to live (5+ / 0-)

    Many Westerns show the Sheriff accosting the ranch hands coming into town to have a "good time" and taking their guns off them as a matter of course.
    Our forbears were courageous, proud and ready to defend their life, their family, their possessions and their liberty.  But they weren't stupid.
    Today's suburbia though is a never-never-land, without real dangers.  So we kid ourselves that our actions have no consequences.  Our forbears would have considered us to dumb to live.

    γνωθι σεαυτόν

    by halef on Mon Jul 23, 2012 at 12:29:37 PM PDT

  •  I remember from visiting Tombstone (0+ / 0-)

    reading the information in the museums and listening to the history presentations that their murder rate in 1880 per capita was higher than Los Angeles in the year 2000 which was the year I was there.

    The same can be said for prohibition chicago when the murder rate per capita was much higher.

    Wyatt Earp had a price on his head for murder in Arizona over the OK coral shootout. It was a huge deal when he became the sheriff of Deadwood, SD many people wanted him in the position for just that reason to get rid seemingly endless supply of "thugs and lowlife"

    My ancestors left Deadwood SD in 1900 to live it the rural outback of the state of Washington because they felt Deadwood was an unsuitable place for their children to grow up. It was violence the that they were concerned about. My gr gr grandfather wrote extensivlely about his experiences as a deputy sheriff there in his journals. It is not very pretty reading.

    As a US Marshall in the State of Washington he noted the gold coast cities were equally unhealthy places to live back then. One such town Port Townsend, WA built a whole new business district especially for the local ladies because it was considered to dangerous for them to go into the down town.

    Fact is there are still places where a person needs a rifle to protect themselves from widlife.

    It is the heart that makes a man rich. He is rich according to what he is not what he has -Henry Ward Beecher

    by PSWaterspirit on Mon Jul 23, 2012 at 01:01:42 PM PDT

  •  I actually hear this from (0+ / 0-)

    people in favor of gun control- "The NRA wants us to be like the wild west, everyone carrying guns around !!"  Well, actually, they want us to be unlike the wild west, which often had strict gun control within city limits.  So that stereotype really is pretty pervasive.  

    "Back off, back off, he's got his own dreams that won't come true!"- Robots

    by satanicpanic on Mon Jul 23, 2012 at 01:05:46 PM PDT

  •  Don't facts get in the way of the NRA and the (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    wilderness voice

    gun Gollums!

    WTF!?!?!?! When did I move to the Republic of Gilead?!

    by IARXPHD on Mon Jul 23, 2012 at 01:12:05 PM PDT

  •  does this mean (0+ / 0-)

    we'll stop hearing about how concealed carry is going to lead to "wild west" shootouts?  Doubt it.

    Medic Alert: Do not resuscitate under a Republican administration.

    by happymisanthropy on Mon Jul 23, 2012 at 01:15:56 PM PDT

  •  Stricter than today? (0+ / 0-)

    Ordinance No. 9:

    Ordinance No.9:

    "To Provide against Carrying of Deadly Weapons" (effective April 19, 1881).

    Section 1. It is hereby declared unlawful to carry in the hand or upon the person or otherwise any deadly weapon within the limits of said city of Tombstone, without first obtaining a permit in writing.

    Section 2: This prohibition does not extend to persons immediately leaving or entering the city, who, with good faith, and within reasonable time are proceeding to deposit, or take from the place of deposit such deadly weapon.

    Section 3: All fire-arms of every description, and bowie knives and dirks, are included within the prohibition of this ordinance.

    Not sure where this nonsense about concealed weapons came from.
    •  What are you trying to say here? (0+ / 0-)

      Besides "I LOVE GUNS SO SHUT UP?" which is obviously your main message. Possibly the only message you have ever conveyed here.

      The diarist got it right, the 1881 law is stricter than today's laws. You didn't even read the diary, did you? I can tell, because you are not responding to anything that was actually written.

      See, if you had read the diary, you would realize where the "nonsense about concealed weapons came from." The law in Tombstone originally banned only concealed weapons, but they changed that to cover ALL weapons, as you illustrate above.

  •  "Bear River" Smith and Ronald Reagan (0+ / 0-)

    In 1965, on the show Death Valley Days, Ronald Reagan played the character of Marshal Bear River Smith, a lawman in Abilene, Kansas during the days of the cattle drives from Texas to the railhead at Abilene.  In 1869, Smith is charged with taming the cowhands and enforcing the gun laws of the town, 'No guns will be worn within the town limits."  Ronald Reagan enforcing gun laws, and that is what he did, taking on the trailhands and even fighting them to take away their weapons.  The town councils of the Wild West were trying to restrict the carrying of guns.

  •  "Don't take your guns to town son, (0+ / 0-)

    leave your guns at home Bill.  Don't take your guns to town."  One of my favorite Johnny Cash songs.  There was a time when art not only entertained, it taught.  Yet one more failing of our "advanced" society.  If your not familiar with the song, meaning if you're under forty or grew up in tepee in Mongolia, look it up.  Bill's mom would have voted for gun control.

  •  Gun laws were rare (0+ / 0-)

    Yes, there were prohibitions against carrying guns in certain towns: Dodge City due to the cattle drovers; Tombstone due to the war going on between an outlaw group and everyone else.

    But these ordinances certainly weren't universal in the days of the Wild West.

    In fact, only Texas had an absolute, statewide prohibition on anyone carrying a handgun, except on their own property. And that was a Jim Crow law enacted during the Reconstruction and enforcement was pretty uneven.

    This is true of a lot of the laws and ordinances that were passed after the Civil War. They were more intended to keep guns away from newly freed blacks and Native Americans. Whites could generally carry with impunity.

    Incidentally, both Tombstone and Dodge City are now in "Constitutional Carry" states with no permit required to carry a handgun openly or concealed.

  •  Now that's offensive (0+ / 0-)

    "you needed a gun to be safe from bandits, natives, and wildlife."

    Natives needed guns to protect themselves from genocidal Americans, not the other way around, and rarely had enough of them or adequate amounts of ammunition.

    While gun control was practiced in town, outside of town there where zero restrictions, so this diary is a bit misleading.

    In fact, the Thompson submachine gun was a quite popular mail-order item in the West in the twenties, long after the natives were subjugated and the wildlife pushed into the remote wildernesses.

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