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
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.