Myth-busting about gun use in the Wild West

Summary:  America’s broken Observation-Orientation-Decision-Action becomes most visible during political debates. For both Left and Right,  fidelity to group dogma about “hot  button” issues defines the group, about which no heterodox thought is allowed. This gives US debates their Alice-visiting-Oz feel, with one of both sides uninterested in inconvenient facts.  Previously we looked at climate change to see this at work on the Left.  In this series we look at similar behavior on the Right: looking at guns in America.  This, chapter 7, looks at the history of guns in the wild west — myths, facts, and echos of our future.



When we think of guns in America, we often turn to the wild west for lessons. Such as how they handled widespread ownership of guns.  How violent was the West? Calculating murder rates for small populations is problematic, especially for societies very different than today’s.

Still, there are lessons.  Look at the famous Kansas cattle towns, where cowboys came to play: Abilene, Ellsworth, Wichita, Dodge City, and Caldwell — described in “Guns, Murder, and Plausibility“, Robert R. Dykstra (Prof History, State U of NY – Albany), Historical Methods, December 2010.

Violence in the Wild West was localized, as it is in today’s America, in certain districts.  And in most western towns it was at levels far lower than that shown in cowboy movies.

{western towns’} population consisted of relatively young males. They commit most murders.  … the middle-class respectables of Dodge City, male and female residents of the north side of town, faced {lower risk} of being murdered as the south-side whores, gamblers, and transient cowboys.  Of the dozen founding fathers of the town’s business community, a group that included Robert Wright, all except one who died of illness survived the entire cattle-trading era without a scratch.

… Dodge City, for example, was very well policed — headquartering over the 10 years it was a cowboy town a deputy US marshal, a county sheriff, an undersheriff, deputy sheriffs as needed, a city marshal, an assistant marshal, policemen as needed, and two township constables. … Five of its 17 adult killings — almost one third — were justifiable homicides by officers. The police meant business …

But there was violence, of a different kind than drunken cowboys shooting each other.  Political violence, aka terrorism.


Often true in US history
Often true in US history

Contention over moral reform at the cattle towns eventually reached especially uncomfortable levels. Although apparent as early as 1871 in Abilene, controversy climaxed in the 1880s after Kansas enacted statewide prohibition, then had trouble enforcing it in a few of its larger cities as well as in Caldwell and Dodge City, the two remaining cattle towns. … {t}he evangelical reformers of Caldwell and Dodge

  1. had lost faith in the administrative efficacy of state governments;
  2. felt that town officials were dishonest by refusing to act against the saloons;
  3. harbored little “fellow-feeling” for their opponents; and
  4. felt that some of their deepest values, and thus their identity, were disrespected and dismissed by local political elites.

… In Caldwell in 1884, the house of an uncompromising foe of liquor burned to the ground, allegedly torched by defenders of the status quo. Also 3 months later, anti-liquor vigilantes, having decided that a leading culprit was a bootlegger name Frank Noyes, dragged him from his cottage one night and — as a gruesome warning to other lawbreakers — strung him up. No similar lynching occurred that year at Dodge City. But a rogue faction among the prohibitionists also played arsonist, setting the downtown ablaze one night, ridding it of the several up-market saloons along Front Street as well as a number of legitimate businesses.  A week later these zealots finished the job with a fire that wiped out the adjoining Chestnut Street bordellos.  Mayor Robert Wright, whose flagship mercantile outlet had gone up in smoke, retaliated by firing 3 pistol bullets into the house of the prohibitionists’ leading figure …

The larger point is that the death of Frank Noyes was the only criminal fatality stemming from these many seasons of cattle-town social and political tension and unrest.

1884’s violence at Caldwell and Dodge  was not random.  It was instrumental, purposeful, premeditated, strategic, and targeted. The aggrieved took action not against their wives, friends, and acquaintances, but against the business enterprises of men they deemed secular and moral outlaws. This was terrorism — not real or attempted homicide.

With respect to lynching in its broader aspects, illegal executions in only three states of the Wild West (California, New Mexico, and Colorado) have been carefully studied by historians, and these three states combined suffered per-100,000 lynching rates of 5.5 in the 1860’s, and only 0.7 in the 1890s. By that last decade, rates were highest in the Deep South, as exemplified by Louisiana’s 1.2 rate for the 1890s.

In other words, lynching had metastasized from a punishment commonly meted out to rustlers, horse thieves, and frontier murderers into deadly violence against southern blacks.

Here we see a possible future for our heavily armed America.  Episodes of mass murder, children killing each other with Dad’s gun, and other casual gun use will not affect the Republic — no matter how horrific. Much like the killings in Dodge’s saloon’s had no long-term effect other than giving us pulp westerns and B-movies.

But terrorism shaped the American West during the late 19th century. Violence against Indians. Against blacks. Against workers (early unions). Against small ranchers.  Terrorism by armed men, directed for political purposes, directed at Americans, in an early America still riven to an extent difficult for us to imagine today by fissures of race, ethnicity, class, and geography — before the homogenizing effect of the world wars and civil right struggles.  Guns allow an organized minority to dominate the public.

But new fissures have appeared, exacerbated by our loss of national identity and dying faith in the American project. New sources of violence have appeared, albeit in embryonic form: animal rights, eco-terrorists, “militia”, and sovereign nation separatists — motivated by the same four reasons listed above.

Should these these cancers grow, even mutate, other nations might look at America and see a lawless, violent land. As they did in the 19th century.

Other posts about guns and gun control

  1. The Founders talk to us about guns for a well-regulated militia,24 July 2012
  2. Yet another mass killing in America. Watch the reactions on the Right, and learn., 17 December 2012
  3. “The right to shoot tyrants, not deer”, 11 January 2013
  4. But Hitler confiscated guns, leaving Germans helpless!, 11 January 2013
  5. Guns do not make us safer. Why is this not obvious?, 14 January 2013
  6. Let’s look at the Second Amendment, cutting through the myths and spin, 15 January 2015
  7. Myth-busting about gun use in the Wild West, 16 January 2013
  8. Second amendment scholarship (using money to reshape America), 19 January 2013
  9. Do guns make us more safe, or less? Let’s look at the research., 23 January 2013
  10. Guns in the wild west: regulated, with no fears about ripping the Constitution, 25 January 2013

For More Information

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10 thoughts on “Myth-busting about gun use in the Wild West”

  1. I understand that in the old West (1865-1900) the carrying of guns in town was often prohibited. This would I think be termed open carry today.

    What I do believe is different is that these towns did not attempt to inventory, register, or otherwise intrude into the private property aspect of guns. I am not familiar with the eastern half of the country but I would guess that it was relatively similar.

    1. Dennis,

      Yes. But the principle is the same between those two things, western towns giving a historical precedent that the 2nd Amendment allows reasonable regulation appropriate to the circumstances.

  2. I understand what you are getting at, and maybe I am simply splitting hairs, but the difference between regulating and forbidding possession seems to be a slippery slope. I don’t believe that there is any precedent for forbidding possession which seems to be the current goal. A fair comparison might be the automobile, which kills tens of thousands of Americans every year. It is regulated, but even people who have lost their licenses are not forbidden from owenership.

    1. Dennis,

      “I don’t believe that there is any precedent for forbidding possession which seems to be the current goal.”

      As I have shown so often, inability to see reality clearly has become a distinguishing characteristic of US conservatives. This is a fine example. Gun regulation in the US is, broadly speaking, at multi-generational lows. By some measures, at century-long lows. And retreating fast.

      Each year brings new frontiers in roll-back of gun regulation. For example, twenty years ago these guys would have been thrown in the can for this stunt:

      Armed protesters rattle Texas moms’ gun-control meeting

  3. Wow, I grew up and still live in the West. Even I find this open carry stuff to be ridiculous. I am a veteran, and I get a lot of flak from my liberal in-laws. I do appreciate the honest intellectual discussion from this Web site.
    I am however glad that my ancestors and their neighbors had guns in Colorado at the miner’s strike in 1916, and the Wyoming Johnston county war. The 1% at that time were pretty violent.

    1. Dennis,

      “The 1% at that time were pretty violent.”

      The various armed struggles by workers accomplished little or nothing. Their victory came through political mobilization, which was hindered by the fighting. It made more enemies than friends.

      This macho fighting-is-great attitude, even when it leads to defeat, is still part of our mental DNA. It has become a liability we can no longer afford.

      How many wars must we lose to learn this? Both foreign and domestic, such as the big race riots of the late 1960s and 1970s — and the radical Lefts’ bombings and violent riots.

  4. First, I was referring to the Ludlow Massacre in 1914, my bad. I chose these two instances, because of the self-defense issues. In both workers were attacked and fought back. I don’t find combat macho. I have been there. However, I am not Gandhi. I will fight back if attacked.

    I also agree that the bozos in the 1960s and 1970s were idiots. I got the opportunity to live though that.

    1. Dennis,

      Counterfacturals are of limited use for analysis, but sometimes all we have so … I believe Ludlow is evidence for my theory —

      The Colorado militia took up positions over the camp. The miners moved against them, and then fighting broke out (it doesn’t matter who shot first). The miners suffered more.

      So of what use were the guns?

      Would the militia have fired at a camp with women and children in it. That has happened, but rarely (i.e., against White people; it was SOP against Indians and Blacks).

      The workers counter-attacked the next day, destroying structures — this allowed the miners to paint them as the villians. Was the property damage inflicted a good trade-off for the miners vs loss of the moral high ground — loss of public support?

      This is where 4GW theory helps understand these struggles. The moral high ground is often decisive. Hence Ghandi.

      The opposite strategy has been used by the Palestinians — macho guns! suicide bombers! killing children! What has it gained them? In Sum of All Fears Tom Clancy describes an alternate world where the Palestinians adopted Ghandi’s non-violent resistance to Israel’s land grabs — and won a negotiated settlement.

  5. This is interesting.

    My research says that the workers were fired on first by the Colorado National Guard. We did get the 8 hour workday and child labor laws from this. Rockefeller also got his horns trimmed. There are other instances in history when passivity simply lead to extinction.
    As you pointed out African Americans, Native Americans, and other minorities such as Gays have had less luck with it.

    1. Dennis,

      No about native Americans. Their violence gained them absolutely nothing but suffering, slowing the inevitable adaption. Nor were they made extinct.

      No about Blacks in America. Their rebellions gained them nothing but suffering. Nor were they made extinct.

      The essence of 4GW is understanding the cultural nature of violence. Workers futilely using violence because of violence against Indians is a cognitive error. Very different contexts.

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