With support from the University of Richmond

History News Network

History News Network puts current events into historical perspective. Subscribe to our newsletter for new perspectives on the ways history continues to resonate in the present. Explore our archive of thousands of original op-eds and curated stories from around the web. Join us to learn more about the past, now.

Even the Wild West Embraced Gun Control

Although we all know that cowboys strutted around shooting off their Colt .45s “Peacemakers” all day, the Wild West wasn't so wild that it – and the Stormy South -- couldn't include gun control. 

History is annoying. It muddies our legends with facts. Indeed, many local laws in the nineteenth-century prohibited carrying concealed weapons. A Dodge City billboard warned: “The Carrying of Firearms Strictly Prohibited.” Also, that “gun that won the west,” the Peacemaker – was about a tenth as popular as the Harrington & Richardson. And the legendary Gun Fight at the OK Corral was triggered partially by the Tombstone, Arizona, law compelling individuals to check-in their guns when they arrived in town.

History is also delightfully messy. Past nuance undermines partisan certainties. As UCLA Law Professor Adam Winkler writes in Gunfight, “You are certain to see more gunfights in a two-hour movie about the Wild West than you would have seen in a year of the dusty streets of Deadwood, South Dakota” – or most Wild West hot spots. And the South, Winkler adds, “was the region where some of the earliest, most burdensome, gun control laws in American history were first enacted.” At the same time, Southerners and Westerners were often gunslingers. And, as the Harvard Professor Steven Pinker writes in The Better Angels of Our Nature, the South and West were and remain America’s most honor-obsessed, and thereby most violent, regions.

In 1813, Kentucky and Louisiana became the first states to pass laws banning concealed weapons. Those laws demonstrate that only 22 years after the Second Amendment became part of the Constitution, many legislators and jurists read its guarantee that “the right of the People to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed,” through its opening, qualifying, phrase: “A well-regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free State.” 

Western law long legitimized such restrictions. Great Britain’s legal pioneer William Blackstone wrote that "riding or going armed, with dangerous or unusual weapons, is a crime against the public peace."  In that spirit, a nineteenth-century Alabama court concluded that the right guaranteed by the state constitution "is not to bear arms upon all occasions and in all places," meaning the legislature can "suppress the evil practice of carrying weapons secretly."  The Louisiana courts would note that concealed weapons create the "tendency to secret advantages and unmanly assignations." ...

Read entire article at The Daily Beast