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History Repeats Itself: Recalling Early American Gun Control in the Wild West

By: Joe Warta

As we watch the political fallout of mass shootings consume the nation every few months, we hear the same arguments favoring gun control rehashed by the mainstream media. It reminds us that it’s certainly true that history repeats itself. A quick survey of U.S. history shows the national, reactionary push for gun control is not a new phenomenon and has been happening almost since our nation’s inception.

The history of gun rights in the United States is expansive. The American Revolution was fought by patriots with their personal firearms against a tyrannical government, and the U.S. has been marked by a culture of gun ownership ever since. The Second Amendment has enshrined our gun rights since its adoption in 1791, but it has not existed since then without its challenges.

When discussions about gun control occur, there are a few common historical events and legislative actions gun control supporters and opponents alike frequently cite. The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, the National Firearms Act, the Brady Act, and recent school shootings in Newtown, Connecticut and Parkland, Florida are typical, go-to jumping off points for arguing about guns.

But all of the aforementioned instances of firearms-related events and laws occurred after 1929. Does that mean 1929 is the beginning of gun control in the United States? No. Not by a longshot.

It is true that at the federal level, the Second Amendment was hardly a passing thought for much of the eighteenth, nineteenth, and beginning of the twentieth centuries. In fact, the Supreme Court has only touched on the Second Amendment a handful of times from its implementation to present day. The 2008 District of Columbia v. Heller case was the first time since 1939 the court interpreted the Second Amendment. In fact, from the ratification of the Bill of Rights until 1992, there were only nine cases in which the Supreme Court even mentioned the Second Amendment!

Does this mean gun rights and gun control weren’t issues of concern in the United States prior to 1939? Certainly not.

When most Americans imagine the “Wild West,” they think of exciting gunfights, cowboys brandishing all manner of firearms at the slightest provocation, and a culture of lawlessness. It’s a perception immortalized in epic Hollywood movies. But the Old West did have its fair share of laws regulating firearms, and many of our favorite gunslingers were caught up in the game of gun control. Cities and towns like Tombstone, Dodge City, and Deadwood banned guns outright within their borders.

Adam Winkler, a professor at the UCLA School of Law, summed up the situation for many Western cities in a February article for Smithsonian Magazine, explaining how “Gun Control Is as Old as the Old West”:

“People were allowed to own guns, and everyone did own guns [in the West], for the most part… Having a firearm to protect yourself in the lawless wilderness from wild animals, hostile native tribes, and outlaws was a wise idea. But when you came into town, you had to either check your guns if you were a visitor or keep your guns at home if you were a resident.”

Such laws left their mark on Tombstone, Arizona especially. The legendary gunfight at the O.K. Corral was, in part, a dispute over gun control that escalated and boiled over. The town’s marshal, Virgil Earp, and his deputized brothers Wyatt and Morgan, along with their deputized friend Doc Holliday, were performing their duties by disarming visitors to the small western town. A group of cowboys refused to disarm and brandished their weapons openly. Their defiance led to a shootout at the O.K. Corral, where the lawmen and cowboys had a showdown over gun control which ultimately cost three cowboys their lives.

Further east, Kentucky and Louisiana moved to ban concealing weapons altogether in 1812. Arrests for concealed weapons soon became one of the most common causes of arrest, next to drunkenness and disorderly conduct.

To show how such measures came to be in the West, historian Ross Collins notes some anti-gun attitudes prevalent during this period. Laramie’s Northwest Stock Journal, for instance, had this to say in 1884: “We see many cowboys fitting up for the spring and summer work. They all seem to think it absolutely necessary to have a revolver. Of all foolish notions this is the most absurd.”

Collins points to the sentiment expressed by the editor of the Black Hills Daily Times in 1884, who “called the idea of carrying firearms into the city a ‘dangerous practice,’ not only to others, but to the packer himself.”

And lastly, Collins notes: “A.T. Packard in August 1885 called ‘packing a gun’ a ‘senseless custom,’ and noted about a month later that, ‘As a protection, it is terribly useless.’”

Gun control certainly existed in the Wild West, and many people approved of it, but that’s not to say settlers of the early American West didn’t value firearms or believe in private gun ownership. Gun ownership was absolutely a central part to life in the West; threats abounded for those on the frontier. Carrying firearms was simply limited within some cities.

Joe Warta is a student and former intern at the National Association for Gun Rights, writing from North Carolina. Contact him at jpwarta@ymail.com.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Gunpowder Magazine.