Gun laws were tougher in old Tombstone
A billboard just outside this Old West town promises “Gunfights Daily!” and tourists line up each afternoon to watch costumed cowboys and lawmen reenact the bloody gunfight at the OK Corral with blazing six-shooters.
But as with much of the Wild West, myth has replaced history. The 1881 shootout took place in a narrow alley, not at the corral. Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday weren’t seen as heroic until later; they were initially charged with murder.
And one fact is usually ignored: Back then, Tombstone had far stricter gun control than it does today. In fact, the American West’s most infamous gun battle erupted when the marshal tried to enforce a local ordinance that barred carrying firearms in public. A judge had fined one of the victims $25 earlier that day for packing a pistol.
“You could wear your gun into town, but you had to check it at the sheriff’s office or the Grand Hotel, and you couldn’t pick it up again until you were leaving town,” said Bob Boze Bell, executive editor of True West Magazine, which celebrates the Old West. “It was an effort to control the violence.”
A national debate over gun control has flared since a gunman killed six people and wounded 13 others, including U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, two weeks ago in Tucson. The suspect, Jared Lee Loughner, is accused of firing 31 shots from a Glock semiautomatic pistol with a high-capacity ammunition magazine.
Hours after the rampage, Pima County Sheriff Clarence W. Dupnik appeared to partly blame Arizona’s lax gun laws for the violence, saying he opposed “letting everybody in the state carry weapons under any circumstances that they want, and that’s almost where we are.”
“I think we’re the Tombstone of the United States of America,” he declared.
Dupnik’s dig didn’t go down well here.
Deep in the desert southeast of Tucson, Tombstone is tucked in a sere landscape of gullies and gulches, sagebrush and sorrel. About 1,500 people call it home, though the population swells each day as tourists clomp down wooden sidewalks, munch buffalo burgers and shop for cowboy kitsch.
Dupnik has “bank robberies and murders every week up there,” fired back Ben Traywick, 83, a Tombstone historian who keeps a pistol on his desk and a shotgun nearby. “And he’s bad-mouthing us? If you wanted to commit a crime, would you go to a town where everyone carries a gun? We have no crime.”
But that’s another Tombstone myth.
Local crime is low by big-city standards. But given the size of its population, with two rapes and 10 assaults in 2009, the last year for which figures are available, the town’s violent-crime rate was higher than the state’s average on a statistical basis. Similarly, with 88 crimes total, the town’s crime index per 100,000 was higher than the national average, 475.5 compared with 319.2.
Arizona’s gun laws are among the most lenient in the nation. Under legislation passed last year, guns are permitted almost everywhere in the state except doctors’ offices and some businesses. It is one of three states, along with Alaska and Vermont, that allow people 21 or older to carry concealed weapons without a permit. Concealed guns may be carried into bars as long as the gun owner isn’t drinking, and guns are permitted on school grounds as long as the weapon is unloaded and the owner remains in a vehicle.
Any law-abiding citizen 18 or older may buy or possess a rifle or shotgun. To buy a handgun, federal law requires a minimum age of 21. Firearms may be sold 14 hours a day, seven days a week, except Christmas.
Arizona’s love of guns is rooted in its rugged rural history and enshrined in the state’s constitution, drafted in 1910. “The right of the individual citizen to bear arms in defense of himself or the state shall not be impaired,” it reads. The state celebrates its independent spirit and a culture of individual rights and distrust of government.
Given its lurid past, Tombstone may not be a typical community. But it provides vivid evidence of what state law allows in practice.
“In this town, pretty much everyone carries a gun,” said John Wiest, 65, a storekeeper who patted a Ruger semiautomatic pistol on his side.
“I carry it into the bank when I go in to make a deposit each morning,” said Dave Ericson, 60, a California native who moved here last year and wears a working reproduction of an 1873 Colt Peacemaker in a hand-tooled holster on his hip. “No one even looks up.”
A few shops and restaurants in the historic district, including Big Nose Kate’s Saloon, remain true to the Old West gun ordinances that were common on the frontier and have posted “No Weapons Allowed” on their doors. A block away, the OK Corral gunfight site similarly bars anyone from bringing a real gun to the fake gunfight.
Still, many here view the idea of gun control — even restricting sales of the extended-ammunition magazine used in the Tucson shootings — as little better than cattle-rustling.
“Once you take something away, it’s just a foot in the door,” said G.T. Amell, 64, who retired here from North Carolina and who wore a leather-fringe jacket and a handlebar mustache. The Tucson killer, he said, “is just one nut in 310 million people. It’s just going to happen.”
Out on Boot Hill, where rocky graves still mark the remains of the three men killed in the 1881 shootout, as well as others who were shot, stabbed, hanged and, in one case, “taken from the county jail and lynched,” Janet Presser, a 47-year-old Nevada visitor, was also skeptical of curbing gun sales.
“My view is any kind of rule limiting guns only limits honest people from getting weapons,” she said, snapping photos of Tombstone’s tombstones.
In its heyday, Tombstone was a rough-and-tumble silver mining town with more than its share of saloons, gambling dens and prostitutes, then known euphemistically as “soiled doves.” But so were lots of other Old West settlements.
So what made it famous? On Oct. 26, 1881, the three Earp brothers and Doc Holliday faced off against four supposed desperadoes in a 15-foot-wide alley between two buildings a block from the OK Corral. “We have come to disarm you,” warned Virgil Earp, the marshal, seeking to enforce the town gun ordinance. It was never clear who fired first, but when the dust cleared, three of the cowboys lay dead and their leader, Ike Clanton, had run away.
The gunfight was little known until the 1920s, when a pulp novelist dubbed it the “Gunfight at the OK Corral” and Hollywood turned it into a symbol of the Wild West. That too was a kind of myth.
“Believe it or not, Tombstone had one of the few stand-up fights where men squared off and just shot it out,” said Marshall Trimble, Arizona’s state historian. “That kind of thing was really rare. Also, it was named Tombstone. If they had fought it out in Bisbee or Benson, we might never have heard of it.”