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Reach for the Sky: Gun Control in the American West

October 18, 2017

A rugged-looking man in sun-faded ranching clothes and a white Stetson stands, shootin’ hand at the ready, in a dusty frontier thoroughfare. Another man - similarly rugged, similarly tense, but this time with a black Stetson - faces him twenty paces away. A tumbleweed rustles by, because of course it does. Beads of sweat gather on the men’s foreheads as the town sheriff watches nervously from the safety of the local saloon.

The men are still - until one hand twitches.

 

BAM! Guns blazing! Six-guns popping! One less hat!

 

Right?

 

Okay, maybe not.

 

Aside from being the climax of most spaghetti westerns, this scene is also probably the first thing to come to mind when we think of the American West. Heroes and villains, roughshod men with gnarly facial scars who ride into town with a six-string - er, six-gun - ready to shoot down the bad guy. In fact, it’s hard to find a Western where a main character isn’t armed to the teeth. Revolvers, pistols, shotguns, rifles - everyone seems to have a firearm of choice, and the high noon stand-off wouldn’t quite be the same without it. But all this gun-slinging begs an important question. Were all these swarthy gentlemen really shooting each other left and right? Is that really a fair representation of the American frontier?

 

The answer, as it turns out, is more complicated than a simple yes or no. (I mean, we are talking about history here.) But while Hollywood might lead us to believe the Wild West was a Smith & Wesson rodeo, we do know about one policy in particular that challenges this representation: gun control.

 

Rather than be home to daily shootouts, many frontier towns boasted gun control legislation more draconian than present-day regulations. Settlements like Wichita, Kansas required travelers to check their guns into the sheriff’s station, receiving some sort of marker or token in return like we might get today at a coat check. [1] Open carry of such weapons was often prohibited - as was the case in Tombstone, Arizona, the site of the famous Shootout at the OK Corral. [2] (Today, on the other hand, you could strut your armed way down the streets without so much as a permit.)

 

Local notables from sheriffs to journalists called for tighter restrictions on firearms as well. In 1884, referring to the prevalence of revolvers among local cowboys, the Laramie Northwest Stock Journal said, “Of all foolish notions this is the most absurd.” [3] An 1884 dispatch from the Texas Livestock Journal concurred, expanding on the danger of firearms in general: “The six-shooter loaded with deadly cartridges,” they said, “is a dangerous companion for any man, especially if he should unfortunately be primed with whiskey. Cattlemen should unite in aiding the enforcement of the law against carrying of deadly weapons." [4] Often, institutions and governments in the West made it clear early on that they saw guns as dangerous and unnecessary.

 

Companies weren’t the only firearm challengers - even everyday citizens got involved on the side of stronger gun laws. The first law instituted by the municipal government in Dodge City, for example - that notorious Kansas settlement where the railroad, mining, cattle, and thieving industries rubbed elbows under Wyatt Earp - prohibited the concealed carry of firearms, and the historical record of casualties in that city is hundreds lower than the numbers claimed by the media. [5] Many of these discrepancies can be laid at the feet of eager journalists and entertainers, responsible for inflating the mythos of Dodge and other Western locales like Deadwood, South Dakota in order to capitalize on violent rumor. [6]

 

So what conclusions can we draw from this debate? Unfortunately, if we’re looking for any swift pronouncements about the Eastwoods and the Waynes and the Newmans of the world, we’re not likely to find them here. The nature of the American West - that under-regulated, still-developing frontier of the 19th century - was a chaotic one, regardless of how many Colt .45s were checked in to the sheriff. (Though it is perhaps necessary to note the role violence has played in American history, both before and after this particular slice.) Scholarly opinions of this era could in fact be divided into what Robert R. Dykstra termed “Frontier was Violent” and “Frontier was Not Especially Violent” schools, which - while understandable from a historical point of view - is not particularly satisfying in the search for a distinct definition of Western life. [7]

 

What we can take away, however, is the existence of and emphasis on Western gun control legislation in the first place. As with the rest of America’s gun history, these laws have clear ramifications on the present day. But more immediately, they sit in direct opposition to America’s artistic depictions of its 19th-century frontier, and allow us to view those classic Western films and works of fiction as just that: fiction. Deconstructing historical representation is vital to a proper understanding of that same history. So while we’re still allowed to root for the white hat, and cheer when the black hat goes down, we just have to remember the real hats probably checked their guns at the door.

 

[1,2 5] Adam Winkler, Gunfight: The Battle Over the Right to Bear Arms in America (W. W. Norton, 2013); https://www.huffingtonpost.com/adam-winkler/did-the-wild-west-have-mo_b_956035.html

[3, 4] https://www.ndsu.edu/pubweb/~rcollins/scholarship/guns.html

[5, 6, 7] http://www.jstor.org.proxy-um.researchport.umd.edu/stable/40505651

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