The wild and not so gun-loving West

 

On many a summer evening in the small, former mining town of Silverton, Colo., the staccato sound of gunshots echoes through the otherwise quiet streets. Follow the shots and you’ll come across a cast of stereotypical Old West characters riddling one another with bullets, as folks no doubt did once upon a time in these parts. Except that they didn’t. Not really.

Back in the 1950s, those Silverton gunfights (they’re shooting blanks, by the way) were held when you’d expect them to be: As the narrow gauge train, loaded down with tourists, rolled into town in the middle of the day. Theatrical value aside, the gunfights were no more by the 1970s. A group of history-minded citizens had gained influence, and rejected the charade as an inaccurate portrayal of their town’s history.

The West is and always has been a land of myths, a big blank spot on the map into which the rest of the world can put their misconceptions. Today, in the aftermath of the Newtown shootings, one of the most persistent, and perhaps most false, myths is being bandied about again in the public conversation: that of the Wild gunslinging West. In a recent piece on National Public Radio, commentators equated a society in which people pull guns to settle minor disputes, or take guns into theaters and schools, with the “Wild West.” So ingrained into our collective consciousness is this myth that we repeat it without a second thought: The West was a place where the citizenry was armed to the teeth, the only law and order came from each individual and his or her Colt .45, and that gun-loving trait persists in our culture today, even to the point of being an integral part of Western identity.

Like most myths, the gun-filled Wild West one, and the Silverton gunfights it has spawned, were born out of a bit of truth. Yet, nourished by pop culture and a sort of snowball effect of falsehood, the Western gun myth has grown up to look very little like the true story from which it comes.

Even in late 19th Century Silverton, a rough-and-tumble mining town if there ever was one, gunfights were extremely rare. There were incidents in the region of gangs battling lawmen, and the occasional shot fired in anger in a saloon. Full-on fights, in which the butcher, baker and candlemaker were also involved, were virtually unheard of, however. Silverton’s most famous gun battle occurred when a 19-year-old recidivist blindsided and shot the town marshall dead in 1881. A few shots ensued between fellow criminals and lawmen, but no one was hit. The criminals were hanged, not shot, by vigilantes. After that, such violence subsided.

It’s not that guns were absent. Hunters -- who made up a good portion of the citizenry -- were armed, and I’ve read accounts of newspaper editors keeping pistols stashed away to ward off angry readers. By and large, however, it was not an armed citizenry that kept law and order, but the marshals, sheriffs and federal government. Rare flare ups between the area Utes and white settlers were handled by soldiers, not well-armed militias. The only assault rifle back then was the Gatling Gun, which, of course, was limited to use by the military. It’s worth remembering that Gatling invented the gun thinking -- NRA-like -- that a more efficient killing machine would reduce the carnage on the battlefield. He was terribly wrong.

Comb through the region’s early newspapers, and you’ll find only occasional mentions of killings by gun. Accounts of people shooting people over the 19th Century equivalent of a fender bender are sparse. Madmen in the Wild West didn’t shoot up schools or even saloons, and believe it or not, the teachers weren’t armed.

Guns were used in these parts for suicide as often as they were for murder or self-defense, but it’s worth noting that guns weren’t so ubiquitous that they were the primary instrument for killing oneself: For that there was drinking acid, blowing oneself up or tying stones to one’s ankles and jumping in an ice-cold river. Indeed, if you’re looking for a key trait of Western identity, look no further than our propensity to kill ourselves. It’s a sad part of our culture, but we thankfully don’t sanctify it like we do guns.

I grew up in the rural West and my ancestry is about as Western as a white guy’s can get, but guns were never part of my growing up. My grandfather, a farmer, had a rifle; I only saw him using it to once or twice to shoot lambs before butchering them. It was a tool, in other words, like the axe my grandmother may have used to chop the head off a chicken, not an icon of his culture or an important part of who he was. My friends, also rural Westerners, didn’t have guns, and I didn’t shoot a firearm until I was in my 30s. As rowdy youngsters who wanted to cause trouble, we were much more likely to dabble in explosives than firearms.

In fact, I’d say dynamite is at least as deeply ingrained in this particular region’s cultures as guns are. This was mining country, after all, and miners relied on explosives on a daily basis to make a living, and a killing. Dynamite was easy to access, and was not uncommonly used for suicides and killings over the years, even in more modern times. In 1975, the Silverton depot got blown off its foundation by what we’d call a terrorist these days. Around the same time, a Durango motorcycle shop was blown up, and watering holes in both towns were victims of explosives. Imagine if the National Dynamite Association had had the gaul to suggest that more people should be carrying sticks of dynamite to protect themselves.

These days, dynamite and explosives of all sorts are much more difficult to obtain, and the explosions have subsided. Despite dynamite’s critical role in settling the West, however, Western politicians don’t stand up for dynamite rights. Well-paid lobbyists do not argue that it infringes on our liberties or threatens agrarian culture to subject a farmer to a background check if he buys a truckload of nitrogen fertilizer (and potential bomb). And though I’ve known of people dynamiting ponds as a method of catching fish (they float to the top, you scoop them up), I have yet to hear any politician arguing that regulating the sale of explosives is a threat to the local subsistence culture.

How wild the Wild West actually was is up for debate, but if we’re looking for a symbol of the times, it’s not the Colt Peacemaker and certainly not the AR-15. Nor are firearms integral to Western culture or identity. Take away our semi-automatic guns, our high volume magazines, limit the amount of ammunition we can buy and, yes, we’ll still be Westerners. It’s time to stop reducing ourselves and our region to this silly caricature that was manufactured by Hollywood and a gun industry looking to peddle more of its wares.

In Silverton, the ban on fake gunfights was relaxed to allow them in the evening, when fewer people are around. If you’re in town, it’s a good show. But remember, it’s only a show.

Jonathan Thompson is a senior editor for High Country News. His Twitter handle is @jonnypeace.