In a recent interview, I was asked about the perception that everyone carried guns all the time in the Old West, and that gun laws were weak and permissive. “Is that what you found in your research?” Here’s my answer:
Well, it depends on when and where you’re talking about.
Typically, frontier boom towns mushroomed into existence where gigantic piles of cash were being generated – the buffalo killing fields; gold and silver mining camps; a railroad under construction, etc. For the first couple of years in these places, there was a total absence of law just when the population consisted of minimally educated, testosterone-driven young men. Most of them had a family history of what we consider violent abuse, though it came under the heading of “Spare the rod, spoil the child” back then.
Huge quantities of alcohol were made available by enterprising entrepreneurs, and there were few recreational alternatives to drinking. Boredom, simmering rancor and the assiduous cultivation of grudges led to manly moments of indignation. Disagreements were liable to get physical.
The entire country was awash in firearms after the Civil War. Then as now, enraged young men used what came easily to hand. So it’s true that in those first couple of years in any given settlement, there was likely to be a lot of gun violence and many deaths, though stand-up shoot-outs in the street are almost entirely a movie fantasy. (The gunfight at the O.K. Corral was one of very few such fights in real life.) Frontier shootings were nearly always the result of momentary fury, drunken foolishness, or plain clumsiness in a place where guns were as common as trousers.
Soon, however, a city government would be organized by local businessmen, who noticed that dead men make poor customers. In Dodge City, for example, it was illegal to discharge firearms within the city limits except on the Fourth of July and New Year’s Day. The rest of the year, when you came into town, you were required to surrender your firearms in the first place you entered – most public buildings had peg racks for the purpose and you were given a claim number; when you left town again, you could retrieve your gun. If you were discovered to be carrying a gun, and the police officer decided you were not on your way in or out of town, you would be arrested, jailed and fined. The police commonly pistol-whipped anyone who showed the slightest sign of resistance to being disarmed. Concussions must have been epidemic, but that was considered more humane than shooting the idiot.
In Kansas cow towns, those laws were enforced by men like Virgil, Wyatt and Morgan Earp; Ed, Bat and Jim Masterson; Bill Tilghman and Dave Mather. They all had formidable reputations. Their presence on the police force made these laws stick, despite the fact that the towns were seasonally flooded by thousands of young cowboys with no head for liquor, intent on blowing three months’ wages as quickly as possible in saloons, gambling halls, and brothels.
And while the gunfight in Tombstone had many causes, what finally set it off that afternoon was a misdemeanor: carrying firearms inside city limits.
Ironically and/or tragically, I am currently writing about that famous gunfight in the state of Ohio, where it just became legal to carry concealed handguns in bars. I’m pretty sure it’s still against the law to shoot someone when you get pissed off…