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Gun control is as old as the Old West

on Tuesday, 13 August 2019. Posted in Editorials, Opinions

In the aftermath of the recent shootings in Texas and Ohio, we find ourselves caught in the crossfire of the shootout between gun control opponents and proponents. Their target – the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which reads:

“A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”

It’s hard to imagine how 27 words could stir such division and bitterness within our country. The amendment is often wrongly condensed to “the right to bears arms.” To dismiss the rest of the amendment is to miss its intended meaning.

We all agree the shootings are tragic and senseless. We all agree that one mass shooting is one too many and that something needs to be done. The argument begins when we shift the discussion to how to prevent them from happening.

We thought it might be worthwhile to offer a lesson on senseless shootings and gun control courtesy of our nation’s bastion of history -The Smithsonian Institution. On Feb. 5, 2018, www.smithsonianmag.com published an article by Matt Jancer titled, ‘Gun Control is as old as the Old West.’ The article’s subhead is “Contrary to the popular imagination, bearing arms on the frontier was a heavily regulated business.”

With slight editing due to space constraints, the articles reads as follows:

It's October 26, 1881, in Tombstone, and Arizona is not yet a state. The O.K. Corral is quiet, and its had an unremarkable existence for the two years it's been standing—although it's about to become famous.

Marshall Virgil Earp, having deputized his brothers Wyatt and Morgan and his pal Doc Holliday, is having a gun control problem. Long-running tensions between the lawmen and a faction of cowboys – represented this morning by Billy Claiborne, the Clanton brothers, and the McLaury brothers – will come to a head over Tombstone's gun law.

The laws of Tombstone at the time required visitors, upon entering town to disarm, either at a hotel or a lawman's office. (Residents of many famed cattle towns, such as Dodge City, Abilene, and Deadwood, had similar restrictions.) But these cowboys had no intention of doing so as they strolled around town with Colt revolvers and Winchester rifles in plain sight. Earlier on this fateful day, Virgil had disarmed one cowboy forcefully, while Wyatt confronted another and county sheriff Johnny Behan failed to persuade two more to turn in their firearms.

When the Earps and Holliday met the cowboys on Fremont Street in the early afternoon, Virgil once again called on them to disarm. Nobody knows who fired first. Ike Clanton and Billy Claiborne, who were unarmed, ran at the start of the fight and survived. Billy Clanton and the McLaury brothers, who stood and fought, were killed by the lawmen, all of whom walked away.

The “Old West” conjures up all sorts of imagery, but broadly, the term is used to evoke life among the crusty prospectors, threadbare gold panners, madams of brothels, and six-shooter-packing cowboys in small frontier towns – such as Tombstone, Deadwood, Dodge City, or Abilene, to name a few.

One other thing these cities had in common: strict gun control laws.

“Tombstone had much more restrictive laws on carrying guns in public in the 1880s than it has today,” says Adam Winkler, a professor and specialist in American constitutional law at UCLA School of Law. “Today, you're allowed to carry a gun without a license or permit on Tombstone streets. Back in the 1880s, you weren't.”

Laws regulating ownership and carry of firearms, apart from the U.S. Constitution's Second Amendment, were passed at a local level rather than by Congress.

Carrying any kind of weapon, guns or knives, was not allowed other than outside town borders and inside the home. When visitors left their weapons with a law officer upon entering town, they'd receive a token, like a coat check, which they'd exchange for their guns when leaving town.

The practice was started in Southern states, which were among the first to enact laws against concealed carry of guns and knives, in the early 1800s. While a few citizens challenged the bans in court, most lost.

The federal government of the 1800s largely stayed out of gun-law court battles.

Most established towns that restricted weapons had few, if any, killings in a given year.

It no longer takes a posse of gunslingers or a gang of bad guys to shoot up a town. All it takes is one person. With each mass shooting, our nation appears to be reverting back to the bang-bang shoot’em up Old West. Maybe it’s time for our nation, its politicians, and its citizens to revisit how Dodge City and Tombstone kept the townsfolk safe. With each day, week, month or year our nation fails to agree on a solution to its very serious gun violence issue, you can be certain of one thing - more and more innocent blood will be spilled.

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