No Gunplay

In 1878 a photographer in Dodge City, Kansas, shot what has become one of the best known Old West town photos. Featured is a hand-painted sign atop a wooden billboard in the middle of Front Street reading, THE CARRYING OF FIRE ARMS STRICTLY PROHIBITED. It’s no joke, despite a larger placard beneath advertising Prickly Ash Bitters. On Christmas Eve 1875 the city fathers passed an ordinance outlawing the carrying of concealed weapons. They soon banned the carrying of any weapon. As it dates from an era when violence was arguably far greater than it is today and the carrying of weapons for self-protection was commonplace, the photograph often surprises anyone viewing it for the first time.

There’s no telling how many citizens of Dodge violated the ordinance by carrying concealed weapons, and it is uncertain how often or how well lawmen enforced the ban on guns. But one well-documented attempt at enforcement, on the night of April 9, 1878, ended badly for City Marshal Ed Masterson, brother of sometime lawman and often gambler Bat Masterson. Award-winning California author John Boessenecker details that deadly confrontation in his April 2021 cover article, “Damage Control.” He also points out that at the time of the infamous Arizona Territory gunfight near the O.K. Corral, on Oct. 26, 1881, Tombstone had an ordinance prohibiting the carrying of firearms inside the city limits. Though the ne’er-do-well McLaury and Clanton brothers were connected with crimes ranging from cattle stealing to murder, on that fateful day the Earp brothers (with an assist from Doc Holliday) went after the Cowboys for openly carrying firearms contrary to the law.

While Dodge City and Tombstone have a reputation as the wildest of Wild West towns, shooting incidents and subsequent efforts to contain gunplay were common across the frontier. Ever since Edwin S. Porter filmed The Great Train Robbery in 1903, Hollywood Westerns have played up saloon fights, armed robberies and killings, but Boessenecker contends it wasn’t all mythmaking. “It was such violence that prompted authorities in several Western towns to enact local gun control ordinances,” he writes. Thus Dodge and the other cow towns, such as Wichita and Abilene, strove to get a handle on gun handlers. Visits from rowdy cowboys were a mixed blessing—good for business, at least for a while, but detrimental to efforts to attract farmers, families and investors. In 1870 the Legislature in Texas, which turned out outlaws galore during that era, passed a law prohibiting the carrying of guns, knives or other weapons in churches and schoolrooms “or into a ballroom, social party or other social gathering composed of ladies and gentlemen,” as well as “any election precinct on the day or days of any election.” The following year it passed another act “to Regulate the Keeping and Bearing of Deadly Weapons…unless [someone] has reasonable grounds for fearing an unlawful attack on his person, and that such ground of attack shall be immediate and pressing.” In February 1884 gunfighter and sometime lawman Ben Thompson unsuccessfully argued such grounds at trial in Austin when charged with “unlawfully carrying a pistol.”

How effective the municipal and state governments were at limiting violence with their gun-control efforts remains subject to debate. Would there have been any killings in Dodge City on that April night in 1878 had Marshal Masterson not tried to disarm a drunken cowboy for openly carrying a six-shooter? Would the gunfight near the O.K. Corral not have happened had the Earps chosen to let the McLaurys and Clantons simply ride out of town with whatever firearms they were carrying? It is a fact that Thompson, who was found guilty and fined $25 for having carried a pistol in February 1884, was gunned down the very next month with friend and fellow Texas gunfighter King Fisher in San Antonio’s Vaudeville Theater. Such events from the wild and woolly days of the Old West are worthy of consideration in any present-day discussion involving restrictions on carrying guns in public. WW

Wild West editor Gregory Lalire’s next historical novel, Man From Montana, comes out in April 2021. His earlier novels include 2019’s Our Frontier Pastime: 1804–1815 and 2014’s Captured: From the Frontier Diary of Infant Danny Duly. His short story “Halfway to Hell” appears in the 2018 anthology The Trading Post and Other Frontier Stories. This article was published in the April 2021 issue of Wild West.