Gun Control and the Old West

America’s right to bear arms. For many who keep a romantic image of America’s past, gun control is like that, a battle steeped in American tradition. It calls us back to those legendary days of the Old West, when cowboys defended their honor and their horses by way of their Colts.The smoke has cleared, and we peer down at the victim: another gun control bill, shot full o’ holes.

In fact, most historians see the cowboy of the Old West as THE defining hero of 20th-century America. He’s used to sell everything from soap to hats. He is apparently also an ideal American for anti-gun control groups; gun shows and gun advertising promote guns using a distinctively Old West flavor. And anti-gun control forces count their strongest support among society’s leaders from the states that formed part of the Old West.

The actual Old West pioneers of historical fact viewed matters differently, however. They would certainly hail the campaign to protect an American right to bear arms, but the record puts them behind “moderate, common-sense measures” for gun control — the very kind President Clinton has proposed.

Pioneer publications show Old West leaders repeatedly arguing in favor of gun control. City leaders in the old cattle towns knew from experience what some Americans today don’t want to believe: a town that allows easy access to guns invites trouble.

What these cow-town leaders saw intimately in their day-to-day association with guns is that more guns in more places created not greater security but greater danger in an already dangerous wilderness. By the 1880s many in the West were fed up with gun violence. Gun control, they contended, was absolutely essential, and the remedy advocated usually was usually no less than a total ban on pistol-packing.

The editor of the Black Hills Daily Times of Dakota Territory in 1884 called the idea of carrying firearms into the city a “dangerous practice,” not only to others, but to the packer himself. He emphasized his point with the headline, “Perforated by His Own Pistol.”

The editor of the Montana’s Yellowstone Journal acknowledged four years earlier that Americans have “the right to bear arms,” but he contended that guns have to be regulated. As for cowboys carrying pistols, a dispatch from Laramie’s Northwest Stock Journal in 1884, reported, “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.”

Cowboy president Theodore Roosevelt recalled with approval that as a Dakota Territory ranch owner, his town, at the least, allowed “no shooting in the streets.” The editor of that town’s newspaper, The Bad Lands Cow Boy of Medora, demanded that gun control be even tighter than that, however. Like leaders in Miles City and many other cow towns, he wanted to see guns banned entirely within the city limits. Another Dakotan in August 1885 called “packing a gun” a “senseless custom,” and noted about a month later that “As a protection, it is terribly useless.”

Old West cattlemen themselves also saw the need for gun control. By 1882, a Texas cattle raising association had banned six-shooters from the cowboy’s belt. “In almost every section of the West murders are on the increase, and cowmen are too often the principals in the encounters,” declared an 1884 dispatch of the Texas Live Stock Journal. “The six-shooter loaded with deadly cartridges 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.”

This anticipates President Clinton’s reaction following the failure in Congress of the most recent gun control proposals: “The American people will not stand for this.” So far they have, however, as can be seen in the defeat of many attempts to legislate control. As U.S. Rep. Martin Sabo (D.-Minn.) noted, “There’s broad public support for it, but the opponents are much more intense about it.”

The Old West’s leaders who argued for gun control knew that a long time ago. Their arguments sound as contemporary at the end of this century as they were earnest at the end of the last. But despite them, few packers have been persuaded to put away their pistols, then or now.

Ross Collins is an associate professor in the Department of Communication, North Dakota State University, and a writer for the History News Service.