Hearts Through History Romance Writers

Gun Control in the Old West? Facts and Fiction

by | July 7, 2012 | 6 comments

Guns were an equalizer in the West and required when there was little order and little visible presence of the law given the size of the territories that had to be covered and the lack of officers to handle it. Throw in the fact that in many counties and municipalities lawmen were in the pockets of the rich and powerful who owned land—and lots of it—and you’ve got some very good reasons why men walked around  “well heeled.” The Johnson County War (Wyoming) and the Lincoln County War (New Mexico) are just two examples of violence spurred by lawmen that were the arm of a faction that wanted to retain power at any price.

So it is somewhat surprising to realize that many counties and towns in the West during the late 1800’s had stiffer gun control laws then they do in the modern era.  But as western towns attracted more families, business men, and industries, the townspeople could no longer tolerate the “wild cowboys”  that were part of area ranch and cattle drives. These were generally young men in their twenties, liquored up, testosterone driven, and with the judgment of a cow on loco weed.

Take some of the roughest towns in the old West:

Fort Worth, Texas, had its share of vice in the form of gambling, drinking, and loose women in an area known as Hell’s Half-Acre. Prostitution and gambling attracted such notable characters as Wyatt, James and Virgil Earp, Billy Thompson, Timothy Courtright (who served as sheriff in between bouts of criminality), Luke Short (gambling proprietor), Charlie Wright and other high profile gamblers and gunslingers. By 1887, after three notorious killings, including that of Timothy Courtright by Luke Short, the citizens of Fort Worth voted in reformers as mayor and sheriff, and thus began the “cleaning up” of Fort Worth. Gambling was now to take place in private rooms, saloons were to close on Sundays, and there would be a ban on carrying guns in the city. Even the police officers were to replace their pistols with clubs or nightsticks. Needless to say, the reformers got their share of flack from the “business” interests of the town, but, by the turn of the century, all these reforms were being enforced.

Dodge City, Kansas was  a “wide-open” town in the 1870s and 1880s and earned its reputation as a Sodom of the plains. Some of the most famous gunfighters in America’s history were officers of the law in Dodge including Wyatt Earp, Morgan Earp, Bat Masterson, and Edward Masterson. The “peace officers” of Dodge often had gambling and saloon interests and mingled with or counted as friends the likes of Ben Thompson, Bill Tilghman, and, our Fort Worth friend, Luke Short, among other infamous characters. As early as 1876, Dodge City had a ban on carrying guns on the north side of town (the south side remained wide open), a ban that was rarely enforced.  However, by 1883 the death toll from gun play had risen sufficiently for the town fathers to enact a stricter ban.  Ordinance No. 67 enacted August 14th 1882 specified that no one could “carry concealed or otherwise about his or her person, any pistol, bowie knife, slung shot or other dangerous or deadly weapons, except County, City, or United Sates Officers” and raised the fine from twenty-five dollars to one hundred dollars, no small amount in 1882. The Dodge City Times declared: “There is a disposition to do away with the carrying of firearms, and we hope the feeling will become general. The carrying of firearms is a barbarous custom, and it’s time the practice was broken up.”

And then there was the famous shoot out at the O.K. Corral in Tombstone, Arizona due to efforts at gun control. After silver was discovered in the mountains surrounding Tombstone in 1879, the town grew from a population of 100 to an astounding 7000 people by 1882. The mining wealth attracted businessmen and their families and with them came a more Victorian era sensibility which clashed with the usual residents of boomtowns: gamblers, brothel owners, miners, and area ranch hands. The Earps arrived in the early days of December 1879, Virgil Earp having recently been named a Deputy U.S. Marshall. In 1881 the town council passed an ordinance prohibiting the carrying of weapons in the town limits:

Ordinance No. 9

“To Provide against Carrying of Deadly Weapons” (effective April 19, 1881).

Section 1: “It is hereby declared to be unlawful for any person to carry deadly weapons, concealed or otherwise [except the same be carried openly in sight, and in the hand] within the limits of the City of Tombstone.

Section 2: This prohibition does not extend to persons immediately leaving or entering the city, who, with good faith, and within reasonable time are proceeding to deposit, or take from the place of deposit such deadly weapon.

Section 3: All fire-arms of every description, and bowie knives and dirks, are included within the prohibition of this ordinance.”

The gunfight between the Earp brothers and those known as “The Cowboys,”  a loose band of outlaws in Chochise and Pima Counties, was predicated on the Clanton and McLaury brothers, supposed members of this band, refusing to turnover their firearms. It is this ordinance that had the judge, in the resulting inquiry, uphold the Earps’ right to kill three of these cowboys. I understand Tombstone had this ordinance on the books until sometime in the 1980’s.

In the West, popular sentiment of day was split between those who felt law enforcement was often in the pocket of special interests (powerful ranchers or town business interests) and therefore they needed their firearms to protect their own interests because the law wasn’t going to, and those townspeople who wanted to go about their business without fear of being in the path of a stray bullet.

This rift can make for some intriguing plot points in historical fiction given America’s history on this issue isn’t what one might expect.

Anne Carrole writes about cowboys who have grit, integrity and little romance on their mind and the women who love them. You can check out her contemporary romance, Re-ride at the Rodeo, at The Wild Rose Press. Or find her at  www.facebook.com/annecarrole, www.facebook.com/lovewesternromances or www.annecarrole.com


  1. Ella Quinn

    Thanks for the post. I find it interesting that outlaws were also law officers.

    • Anne Carrole

      Thanks for stopping in Ella. I’m guessing that many town councils thought the only way to manage the outlaw element was to bring in someone just as tough–another outlaw. Many of the law officers in the west played on both sides, some at the same time.

  2. Kirsten Lynn

    Interesting post, Anne! What jumped out at me is it seemed the Earp brothers pop up in each of the towns you mention and are in the thick of everything.


    • Anne Carrole

      Yup! They seem to have been where the action was which may explain why they were famous even in their own time–that and being deadly with a gun. 🙂 Thanks for stopping by Kirsten.

  3. Nancy C

    Anne, I never thought about the O.K. Corral shooting being about gun control — you’ve given me a new way of looking at a historic event 🙂

    About the Earps, Masterson, etc., being in Fort Worth, it was on the gambling circuit … and one of the Earp brothers lived there. The do seem to pop up everywhere, though, don’t they?

    Thanks for a fun, informative read.


  4. McKenna Darby

    Fascinating! I had no idea that gun control ever occurred in the old West. When the sheriff on “The Rifleman” would insist that known troublemakers turn over their guns while they were in town, I thought that was a case of the writers imposing 1950s sensibilities on a lawless period. Glad to know that the writers, who did such a good job in so many other respects, also got that detail right.



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