Gun regulations made the West not so Wild

Summary: For over a century, America had effective gun regulations. The Republicans destroyed it. Exploiting our gullibility and ignorance, they erased this history from our minds. Here is a reminder of what we lost.

Constitution & guns

America has a long history. But not only do we often refuse to learn from it, we have forgotten much. It has gone down the memory hole, replaced by more politically useful lies. For example, the opening of the Wild West was one of America’s greatest challenges, our response to a growth surge with few precedents in history. Its lessons can help us today, if only we remembered them. How did they manage a society with widespread ownership and open carry of guns?

For a picture of the famous Kansas cattle towns, where cowboys came to trade and play, see “Guns, Murder, and Plausibility“ by Robert R. Dykstra (Prof History, State U of NY – Albany) in Historical Methods, December 2010. Countless books and films describe Abilene, Ellsworth, Wichita, Dodge City, and Caldwell. Violence in these towns was concentrated by neighborhood, as it is in today’s America. Homicide was at levels far lower than that shown in cowboy movies – and lower than in some of our inner cities.

“{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 …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.”

"Gunfight: The Battle Over the Right to Bear Arms in America" by Adam Winkler
Available at Amazon.

The fun stories about the Wild West told in the 19th century’s penny dreadfuls have become part of our collective memory. But myths make a weak foundation for a great nation’s public policy. Historians have documented our real history. My favorite book about this is Adam Winkler’s Gunfight: The Battle Over the Right to Bear Arms in America (2011). He is a professor of constitutional law at UCLA (see his bio and publications). He discusses his research at the HuffPo in “Did the Wild West Have More Gun Control Than We Do Today?

“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 …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.’”

Gun control sign in Dodge City, 1878

“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. …

“The story of guns in America is far more complex and surprising than we’ve often been led to believe. We’ve always had a right to bear arms, but we’ve also always had gun control. Even in the Wild West, Americans balanced these two and enacted laws restricting guns in order to promote public safety. Why should it be so hard to do the same today?”

Wyatt Earp's gun displayed at the Red Dog Salon in Juneau, AK.
On display at the Red Dog Saloon in Juneau; from Wikimedia Commons.

More about the Wild West

Richard Shenkman (founder and editor of History News Network) wrote Legends, Lies & Cherished Myths of American History (1988). It describes how in frontier towns the “carrying of dangerous weapons of any time, concealed or otherwise, by persons other than law enforcement officers …was nearly always proscribed.” The shoot-out at the OK Corral was sparked in October 1881 by the Earp’s arrest of rustler and robber Ike Clanton for violating Tombstone’s Ordinance No.9: “To Provide against Carrying of Deadly Weapons.”

A long line of research going back to Robert R. Dykstra’s (prof history, SUNY Albany) book The Cattle Towns (1968), which shows that the Wild West was not very wild. There were only 15 murders in Dodge City in 1877 – 1886, aprox. 1.5 per year. This was typical of the wildest frontier towns in the West, most of whom had strict gun controls. Mining camps, which had few laws and less enforcement, often had murder rates of 4 or 5 per year (for more about this see his 1996 article). Richard White (prof history, Stanford) describes the effect of gun control: “Those towns such as Bodie and Aurora that did not disarm men tended to bury significantly more of them.” That is the bottom line from his book “It’s Your Misfortune and None of My Own”: A New History of the American West (1993).

A look at Wild Wyoming

Phil Roberts, professor of history emeritus at the U of Wyoming, reminds us of gun regulations in the early days of wild Wyoming.

“In a random check of the earliest town ordinances for six Wyoming towns, I found that five of the six had historical ordinances specifically stating that it was against the law to carry a firearm, either openly or concealed, in the town limits. Violations could lead to fines and jail time. …In the case of Cheyenne, the ordinance was passed Sept. 30, 1867, just 88 days after General Dodge picked the spot where the “magic city” was to be. …

“’It shall be the duty of the Police officers to arrest any person found in the act of violating this ordinance except in the cases of strangers and non-residents of this city who shall be first informed of this ordinance and allowed thirty minutes to comply herewith and should they refuse or neglect to do so within that time they shall be held answerable to the penalties hereof.’

“In Lusk, it took a bit more time from the town founding to its incorporation a decade later, but the council passed the following ordinance on Aug. 1, 1898 …

Gun control sign in Lusk, WY (1898).

“In Worland, a regulation against carrying guns in the town limits was the ninth ordinance passed by the town council: ‘It shall be unlawful for any person in the Town of Worland to bear upon his person, concealed or openly, any fire arm or other deadly weapon within the limits of said town.’  It was passed and adopted unanimously by the council, consisting of several old-time cattlemen and some pioneer businessmen, on May 9, 1906, in the first year of Worland’s existence.

“Casper had passed a similar ordinance a year earlier in 1897.”

For more about gun regulations in the Wild West, see “Gun Control in the Old West? Facts and Fiction“ by Anne Carole at Hearts Through History.


For well over a century, America had a functional and rational system of gun regulations. It combined Federal, State, and local laws, allowing flexibility for local and changing conditions. It was not perfect. It could have been slowly improved over time, based on the experience in 50 States – and that of other nations.

The Republicans destroyed that, in an act of massive social engineering. Exploiting our gullibility and ignorance, they erased that history from our minds. We can remember what we have lost and rebuild it. America’s gun violence need not make us a fearsome outlier among civilized nations.

For More information.

Ideas! For some shopping ideas, see my recommended books and films at Amazon.

An antidote to conservatives’ propaganda: “What Researchers Learned About Gun Violence Before Congress Killed Funding” by Joaquin Sapien at ProPublica, Feb 2013 — “We spoke with the scientist who led the government’s research on guns.”

Here are the findings of an exhaustive study of mass shooters. They also give recommendations, which appear to me to be either extremely difficult to do or probably ineffective.

If you liked this post, like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. See all posts about gun violence and regulation, and especially these …

  1. The Founders talk to us about guns for a well-regulated militia.
  2. But Hitler confiscated guns, leaving Germans helpless!
  3. Let’s look at the Second Amendment, cutting through the myths and spin.
  4. Myth-busting about gun use in the Wild West.
  5. Second amendment scholarship (using money to reshape America).
  6. Do guns make us more safe, or less? Let’s look at the research.
  7. The number of children killed by guns in America makes us exceptional, not better.
  8. Cut thru the lies and myths to understand guns in America.
  9. Why Americans love guns and don’t care about the blood.
  10. Debunking the hysteria about mass shootings.
  11. Is an armed society a safe society?Spoiler: no.
  12. Fury at new mass shootings. Disinterest in the daily killings.

Interesting books about guns

The Cattle Towns (1968) by Robert R. Dykstra’s (prof history, SUNY Albany).

Also see Richard White’s (prof history, Stanford) “It’s Your Misfortune and None of My Own”: A New History of the American West (1993).

The Cattle Towns
Available at Amazon.
"It's Your Misfortune and None of My Own": A New History of the American West
Available at Amazon.

23 thoughts on “Gun regulations made the West not so Wild”

  1. Larry,

    That was an excellent and informative post. It encapsulates your previous posts well.

    Across the country, gun laws vary from state to state. Arizona still has open carry even within city limits but you check your guns at the bar.

    There is a trend toward concealed carry. Now legally manufactured “Sawed off Shotguns” and AR-15 Pistols with 10″ barrels are selling like hotcakes. Who buys them?

    I’m a shooting enthusiast and an NRA member. NRA membership is a prerequisite for membership at my local range. I spend lots of time at the range and at gun shops. I’ve made observations and have come to conclusions. The owners of the NRA are lobbyists and industry leaders. They make and market guns, ammo and accessories. The members are donors, driven to donate out of irrational fear. They’re your gullible sheep.

    The Concealed Carry trend is another brilliant marketing move! That has kept industry hot. Market is saturated with AR’s and AK’s. The industry terminology for them was SLR (Self Loading Rifle). Now its MSR (Modern Sporting Rifle). Clarification? Newspeak from Right?

    When Giuliani was mayor of NYC they had gun control ordinances. No guns in NYC. Suspects were stopped and frisked to ensure compliance. As soon as he was replaced, the policy was ended. It was deemed racist.

    I consider it strange with all these people with Concealed Carry Permits I’m assuming in Texas that no one engaged the El Paso puke. He should have been DRT when Cops arrived! Like I said, sheep.

    1. Longtrail,

      “Across the country, gun laws vary from state to state”

      The range of gun laws is smaller – extremely smaller – than it used to be, since the GOP-run Courts effectively eliminated many forms of gun regulations when they radically re-interpreted the Second Ammendment.

      “no one engaged the El Paso puke”

      Almost all active shooters are put down by police – on-duty or off-duty, sometimes retired. A smaller number are put down by vets. The hordes of armed citizens who are neither vets or police contribute little (although those rare cases are publicized by the NRA, giving members the false idea that they are common). Which supports the wisdom of the Founders – “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State …” The Founders were smart guys. We should, every now and then, listen to them.

  2. How about the argument that in a small town with few strangers the local law enforcement could keep an eye on the strangers who were liable to commit crimes and run them out of town or put them in the pokey until morning? What was the ratio of law enforcement to people and what were the rules regarding preemptive removal of a perceived threat? They can’t now with our increased population and our increased civil liberty focus.

    “no one engaged” – yeah, because concealed carry permit holders are still a very small fraction of the population. Good odds that there wasn’t one around. Also good odds that if there was one somewhere close but not immediate vicinity, he or she had the good sense to leave when they heard shooting, not run towards the gunfire. That is the job of police. The job of armed citizens is to protect themselves and their families.

    Again, almost all active shooters are put down by police because that is their job. I don’t carry so that I can run towards a shooter at the other end of the mall and act like a policeman.

    Someday take a look at the stats of number of people killed in shooter situation where the police end it versus number of people killed in situations where civilian ends it. Civilian ones end a lot quicker because there happened to be someone nearby who was able to take action, rather than waiting for the police to arrive and assess the situation before finally entering.

    The idea that the NRA is falsely publicizing the 1 to 2 million defensive gun uses each year is a bit laughable. Those are fact not opinion. You are conflating active shooters with general self defense. Most cases of self defense with a gun do not involve firing the gun and often do not involve drawing the gun from its holster.

    Are you going back to the argument “the Second Amendment only protects members of the militia”? That has been debunked so many times. The wording of the Amendment doesn’t even support that claim.

    1. Heresolong,

      “How about the argument that in a small town with few strangers”

      The cattle towns and mining camps – the wildest of the wild west – were the exact opposite of that. The bulk of their population was transient, with massive swings as cattle drives arrived & left, and people flowed in and out of mining town based on the latest finds.

      “What was the ratio of law enforcement to people”

      Wild West towns with most of the population being young armed men can’t be compared to our cities – in which young men are a minority and ever fewer are armed.

      Also, you appear to have missed the point of the post. Let’s rewind and repeat.

      “For well over a century, America had a functional and rational system of gun regulations. It combined Federal, State, and local laws, allowing flexibility for local and changing conditions.”

      This regime lasted for roughly 130 years. The mixed regulatory regime allowed cities and states to craft their own laws. It worked for Wild Dodge and post-WWII NYC.

      “Those are fact not opinion.”

      You are missing the point. NRA publicity gives a grossly misleading picture of gun use – focusing on relatively rare instances and ignoring the majority of incidents.

      “Are you going back to the argument “the Second Amendment only protects members of the militia”?”

      Read the posts listed discussing the Second Amendment, describing its role in the minds of the Founders and the subsequent two centuries. I’ll bet you’ll learn much.

  3. Well, I have read significant amounts of material on the Founders and the Second Amendment, including much of their own words. I still can’t seem to get around the words “the right of the people” which in the minds of some means something completely different than in every other amendment. I’m not arguing that gun control wasn’t different back then, I am arguing that the idea that taking the guns away from millions of law abiding citizens doesn’t jibe with what the Founders intended and that it won’t have the desired effect (assuming that the desired effect is to reduce mass shootings). So maybe I am completely missing your point as to what you believe the appropriate gun control is and what you expect it to accomplish.

    Also, to go back to your post which I just reread to see if I missed something, we aren’t a fearsome outlier in violence unless you insert the word gun. Not sure what makes being killed by a knife so much better than being killed by a gun or a baseball bat. Dead is dead and if guns are banned to law abiding citizens then you can’t defend yourself against the knife or bat attack (I hope you will concede the point that even I, as an above averagely fit older man, can’t defend myself hand to hand against a group of young men with violence on their mind. We aren’t even a fearsome outlier in mass shootings, as we rank about 60th in the world in those.

    1. Heresolong,

      “I still can’t seem to get around the words “the right of the people” …”

      The Founders and two centuries of legal scholars disagree with you.

      “we aren’t a fearsome outlier in violence unless you insert the word gun.”

      Grossly false. I suggest you re-read this: Fury at new mass shootings. Disinterest in the daily killings. The homicide stats show that we are an outlier among civilized nations and do not mention “gun.”

  4. Great stuff as always, thank you for posting.

    It has been eerie to me – and it has gotten more visible even within my own lifespan – to see how gun culture has become more of a ritual thing. Honestly, I would not be surprised if some of its growth is as a supplement for the decline of churches and civic organizations etc. As it is, though, it comes off weird – like we’re getting chapters of the local church of ZARDOZ. (Though they never seem to care much for the second half of ZARDOZ’s commands.)

    1. SF,

      I shot 22 calibre rifles as a Boy Scout instructor for 12 years, and belonged to a gun club for several years (firing 100 rounds per week). Also, I sold gold at gun conventions (more for fun than profit). So I have some familiarity with gun culture. It defies easy characterization, as do many “open admission” social communities. Most are sold citizens, esp the hunters. Some are among the most impressive people I’ve met. Some are loons.

      A close friend of mine was a gun nut. Big time gun collector (and art collectors, he was moderately rich). Hunter and marksman. Gun enthusiast. Big believer in defending his home with guns. He had one of the rarest of crimes, a daylight armed invasion of his home by robbers. These people just want to get in and out quietly, with minimum fuss (to avoid getting on the most wanted list). He was upstairs when they broke in. He grabbed his gun and ran downstairs. In the shoot-out, he killed one, was killed, and his wife was seriously injured. The winner: his insurance company.

      I doubt any of this tells us much. The stats are what they are.

  5. The concealed carry law was passed in Texas after a crazy guy methodically executed 25 people in a restaurant. At the time, carrying any weapon was strictly illegal and thus no law abiding person could have fought back.
    The main benefit of anyone being armed is deterrence. The bulk of attention getting mass shootings recently have been set up to work around the threat of an armed response. The LV shooter was careful to be nowhere near his victims. It was well known that Walmarts on the border in El Paso have very few actual Texas residents (who might have legal CC) in there. The many Mexican citizens and illegals crowded in there were predictably helpless.
    Gun laws in the olde West were not especially unpopular in the same way that no-guns- when-you -are-drinking laws are now. Olde West towns were bars first and something else second.
    Also, despite Hollywood, it was not other English speaking cowboys that inspired them to have an interest in guns. Actual crime stats were quite low, even where guns were allowed. It was comanches, mexican bandidos, predators, etc. Here is a fun fact, losing to comanches and Mexicans was always fatal. Mexicans did did not extend any right of surrender to Texans and comanches did not even have a word for it. This was true for about 80 years.
    The very idea that settlers were to go out there un-armed until they had established a “well regulated militia” would have been simply incomprehensible to them or any American at the time.

    1. Rum,

      “it was not other English speaking cowboys that inspired them to have an interest in guns.”

      That’s obviously false.

      • Mining towns which had little or no gun regulation were often bloody.
      • Cattle towns mostly had tight gun regs – as described here – and had low homicide rates.
      • Cowboys riding horses in the wild needed guns for protection against natural hazards more often than Indians and Mexicans. Eg, falling off a horse with a foot in the stirup was fatal unless the horse could be quickly shot.

      The rest is just an exercise in ignoring the statistics. Those statements have little empirical support and have been debunked repeatedly by many studies over two decades. See the posts linked in the For More Info section for details.

  6. I am sorry about what happened to your friend, but there is a world of difference between believing that armed self defence in the home is a bad idea and sending cops into other peoples home to enforce that belief.

  7. Fair point about mining towns. I should have known that, having binge watched “Deadwood.” But weren”t mining towns quite a bit more multi-ethnic than cowboy towns? I have watched those movies as well.
    At any rate, I will hold to the point that gun laws in the old days were not explained by any relationship to membership in a militia. That was the core of the Heller argument, and there is no way settlers saw the need for a thing called “the militia” to give them a right to the means of private self defense. Unless it was to use the word as more of a verb than a noun.

  8. The reflexive rejection of gun regulation by many is a consequence of our society’s willingness to stretch laws to implausible lengths. For instance, the FBI is now looking at classifying conspiracy theories as domestic terrorism.
    So the anti terrorism laws scope gets extended, never mind free speech etc.
    Given that background, why would anyone believe that gun restrictions were anything but the thin end of the wedge?

      1. FM,

        Did you mean that there will be an FM article on “the FBI is now looking at classifying conspiracy theories as domestic terrorism” or do you dispute that under the proposed FBI doctrine anyone may be flagged as terrorist when claiming that there were no WMD in Iraq, in 2003?

  9. “We can remember what we have lost and rebuild it.”

    With so many firearms in private hands in the US, it seems impossible to even start.

    E.g.: There was a compulsory gun registry imposed in Canada in 1995 (after mass shooting in QC, Dec 1989). By 2012 it was cancelled and by 2015 (QC) all collected data destroyed; as it was way over budget, totally ineffective (estimated that only 30% of owners complied) and countless grievances from all direction forced that. And, mind you, Canada has just over 3% of US privately owned firearms, mostly rifles and shotguns, very few legal handguns. And, Canada has had a fair screening for legal firearms acquisition for some time.
    Well, the “legal” is the culprit — there will always be some people willing to trade guns w/o any consideration from/to whom, what for.

    So, in my opinion: it would take US much longer to rebuild it than it took to lose it and it would cost a fortune.

    1. Jako,

      “With so many firearms in private hands in the US, it seems impossible to even start.”

      That’s quite wrong. The experience of other nations shows that gradual gun control measures can have large effects over time. Which is how big changes have been accomplished in US history. Abolition of slavery, votes for women, unionization – all took decades or generations. That’s how great nations are built.

  10. AR 15 rifles were never very popular until they were banned for a few years back in the 90s. Now, they are the gun in most common use in America.
    It was a hard cruel fact that the moon shiners could make passable whiskey faster than the feds could keep up with catching them during prohibition. Never mind that the “revenuers” themselves would come to quick deaths — drinking increased during the prohibition time./
    After AuStralia did what it did 25 years ago in regard to gun control , gun sales have subsequently exploded there.

    Conn. and NY state BANNED all scary looking black rifles; the turn – in rate was close to zero, the rate of police raids into homes of non-compliers has been less than that. Many criminally minded people in this counrty are mass producing untraceable AR lowers/

    Go ahead, burn our civil liberties to the ground … to get nothing in return but a more violent society and some folks with long memories and athirst for revenge.

  11. “There were only 15 murders in Dodge City in 1877 – 1886, aprox. 1.5 per year.”

    True, but Dodge City had a population of 996 in the 1880 census, making that a homicide rate of about 150 per 100,000 population. That’s over twice the current homicide rate of St Louis, MO, which has the highest homicide rate in the United States now. During cattle drives, the actual population could swell a great deal due to transients, but that’s still a high rate.

    1. Mark,

      That’s only sorta correct. See this article by the Kansas Historical Society for a clearer look at this. What we would today call the metropolitan area of Dodge City – not just the city formally – has a permanent population of aprox 1275 in 1780.

      But much of the violence came from the transients – cowboys from the trail herds. Large numbers of them. Young males coming in from long dangerous difficult trips, with money in their pockets and energy to burn off. I can’t think of a good analogy in our time. Small ports with naval fleets arriving is the closest I can think of – but those were military, usually with Shore Patrols to maintain some discipline.

      Comparing the homicide rate of that group with the population of St. Louis – a large proportion of whom are children, elderly, family men, and women – is comparing apples and oranges.

      Another comparison of interest would be the homicide rate in the Wild West with the rate of industrial accidents in that era. That would be eye-opening, but will be left for another time.

    2. This is off-topic, but you might find interesting – the larger context of violence in late 19thC America: “The Other Wild West” by Michael Cronk.

      Thugs employed by the rich to rob or suppress small ranchers and farmers – and unions. Lynchings. Lots of “authorized” violence, on a scale that dwarfs shoot-outs at the OK Corral.

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