Sunday, December 23, 2012

As American as Wyatt Earp

As I mentioned before, today's gun culture is radically different from the one I grew up with. On a related note, the gun rights movement, while often presented as conservative (pushing back against liberal advances) or reactionary (wanting to return to the standards of the past), is actually radical (advocating a move to a state that never existed). The idea that people have an absolute right to carry a weapon anywhere, at any time and in any fashion was never the norm, not even in the period that forms the basis for so much of the personal mythology of the gun rights movement.

UCLA professor of law, Adam Winkler

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.

In my new book, Gunfight: The Battle over the Right to Bear Arms in America, there's a photograph taken in Dodge City in 1879. Everything looks exactly as you'd imagine: wide, dusty road; clapboard and brick buildings; horse ties in front of the saloon. Yet right in the middle of the street is something you'd never expect. There's a huge wooden billboard announcing, "The Carrying of Firearms Strictly Prohibited."

While people were allowed to have guns at home for self-protection, frontier towns usually barred anyone but law enforcement from carrying guns in public.

When Dodge City residents organized their municipal government, do you know what the very first law they passed was? A gun control law. They declared that "any person or persons found carrying concealed weapons in the city of Dodge or violating the laws of the State shall be dealt with according to law." Many frontier towns, including Tombstone, Arizona--the site of the infamous "Shootout at the OK Corral"--also barred the carrying of guns openly.

Today in Tombstone, you don't even need a permit to carry around a firearm. Gun rights advocates are pushing lawmakers in state after state to do away with nearly all limits on the ability of people to have guns in public.

Like any law regulating things that are small and easy to conceal, the gun control of the Wild West wasn't always perfectly enforced. But statistics show that, next to drunk and disorderly conduct, the most common cause of arrest was illegally carrying a firearm. Sheriffs and marshals took gun control seriously.
These facts aren't contested. They aren't obscure. You can even find them in classic Westerns like Winchester '73.

In 1876, Lin McAdam (James Stewart) and friend 'High-Spade' Frankie Wilson (Millard Mitchell) pursue outlaw 'Dutch Henry' Brown (Stephen McNally) into Dodge City, Kansas. They arrive just in time to see a man forcing a saloon-hall girl named Lola (Shelley Winters) onto the stage leaving town. Once the man reveals himself to be Sheriff Wyatt Earp (Will Geer) Lin backs down. Earp informs the two men that firearms are not allowed in town and they must check them in with Earp's brother Virgil.
In other words, even people who learned their history from old movies should know there's something extreme going on.

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