Gun Control Frontier Style
I’m a fan of this magazine and of John Boessenecker. His article “Damage Control,” in the April 2021 issue, missed the opportunity to quote from the Tombstone Daily Nugget. The following editorial appeared on Oct. 23, 1881, the Sunday morning prior to the gunfight on Fremont Street near the O.K. Corral.
Paul Lee Johnson
New York, N.Y.
Editor responds: Johnson wrote the 2012 book The McLaurys in Tombstone, Arizona: An O.K. Corral Obituary and the article “The Will of McLaury,” in the October 2013 Wild West and online at Historynet.com. Here’s the Nugget editorial:
CARRYING DEADLY WEAPONS
The increase of murders in this territory and other states is an alarming state of things which calls for an immediate remedy. We do not know how many murderers are confined in the different county jails, but the number is large and is being augmented almost daily. The newspapers are inquiring the cause and demanding a remedy, but murders continue to be committed with a boldness and recklessness that are terrifying to the quiet citizen who goes peacefully about his business and never thinks of shooting anybody. Usually the matter is attributed to the law’s delay or to the imperfection of their execution, and no doubt this has much to do with it. With our large stock of murderers on hand, it is only now and then that one is tried, and then the felon manages to go scot free or gets a light sentence in the penitentiary at most. The people encourage this state of things by their virtual opposition to capital punishment. The masses do not believe in capital punishment, and this is true even in states which would vote by a heavy majority to retain it in criminal jurisprudence. They seem to think that it is a good thing to have on the statute books, but they hesitate to put it in operation. Occasionally matters get so bad that it is deemed advisable to hang somebody, and then it does not matter much who the victim is. It is almost invariably the fact that the man who is selected for the sacrifice is really less guilty than some who have escaped. But the victim is selected, and without the least difficulty in the world he is unceremoniously fired out of this life. The jury convicts promptly, the court refuses a new trial, the Supreme Court is unable to see anything irregular in the proceedings, and the governor declines to interfere. The public has arrived at the conclusion that a hanging is a necessity. But when it is over, the public stand aghast, and if nobody says anything, everybody is thinking that it is pretty rough treatment after all.
We have no doubt that if the law was strictly enforced it would do much to stay this flood of crime. Men are not anxious to throw away their lives. But a better plan is to put forth greater and more systematic efforts to prevent the carrying of weapons. The arming of oneself in a peaceful community, as every well-organized community is supposed to be, and walking about like a moving arsenal, is highly ridiculous and, as events demonstrate, exceedingly dangerous. Boys and men of all ages and conditions are armed, and at the first flash of anger the pistol is drawn and somebody shot down. It is sometimes necessary for certain people to go armed, but the practice should never be allowed without a license. Considering the importance with which the recklessness of firearms has invested this subject, the general government should assume the entire charge of the manufacture of guns and pistols and should permit them to be sold only by licensed dealers under necessary restrictions. This would do something toward remedying a great evil.
I am very disappointed in Wild West’s obvious endorsement of gun control. Though I do not doubt the facts of the article, including the existence of town ordinances to hinder the carrying of firearms, it would seem, as the article pointed out, that many people—some good, and more to the point, some bad—carried and used firearms. What I object to is this passage from the sidebar in the article:
Westerners recognized that towns of a certain size inevitably attracted saloons, gambling houses, dance halls and the like filled with hard drinking, heavily armed men—a recipe for disaster. A commonsense solution was to ban the carrying of guns in such towns and cities. Enacted out of transient necessity, such laws were considered compatible with Americans’ broader right to keep and bear arms, as enshrined in the Second Amendment of the Constitution.
Having read the Second Amendment, I disagree. Instead of outlawing the carrying of firearms, leaving the law-abiding unprotected against the non—law-abiding criminal element, maybe we should pass commonsense laws against murder and other crimes of violence. Oh yeah, we already do that. Boessenecker took a factual, entertaining article and turned it into his obvious political agenda. Please don’t bother to deny.
John Boessenecker responds: I’m afraid I don’t see any political agenda in my account of frontier gun control laws. As I point out, guns were widely carried on the frontier. One of my favorite photos depicts the William H. Brewer party, which surveyed California in 1864. Two of the four scientists are heavily armed with rifle, revolver and bowie knife. The reason: Frontier areas were extremely dangerous, with little law enforcement, and these weapons were necessary for self-protection. But there was no such need to carry firearms in well-policed towns and cities. Citizens recognized that fact and banned the carrying of firearms in many Old West communities. Your complaint should actually be with those pioneers who introduced this early form of gun control almost a century and a half ago.
Herd Every Word
Many thanks to Connie Cherba for her article “Stampedes!” [Pioneers & Settlers] in the October 2020 Wild West. Fine article, well written, all molded into one. A great and not-so-much-talked-about subject. I’m a longtime amateur buff. I know a great article when I read it!
Send letters by email or to Wild West, 901 N. Glebe Road, 5th Floor, Arlington, VA 22203. Please include your name and hometown. These letters were published in the August 2021 issue.