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The wild and not so gun-loving West

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Jonathan Thompson | Jan 03, 2013 09:00 AM

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.

Colin  Holloway
Colin Holloway
Jan 03, 2013 03:41 PM
Family legend has it we (my dad's side) were over the Cumberland Gap before the battle of Tippecanoe, in Texas before the Alamo and in California by 1850.
What I got from my western heritage was words passed down, at least from my grandfather; "Always make sure to never burden anyone and have enough for anyone who needs help".
A heritage of being neighborly.
I'm sure, just like these days, trouble was there if you went looking for it and that, only rarely, would it come looking for you.
I was brought up in the tradition of the family, as a member of the Society of Friends. My grandfather, raised on the ranch, had firearms, my father did not. I learned how to use them when I went to the hills to live.
I even have a semi auto rifle and pistol. Even a 20 round clip for the ruger. Do I feel like I *Need* them?
 Nah.
I don't need a clip that big to keep the coyotes out of the hen house.
Deb Dedon
Deb Dedon Subscriber
Jan 08, 2013 01:46 PM
The 'wildness' of the west was less gunslinger than carpetbagger. Arizona still has plenty of land scammers toting bags of legal tricks.

This morning Tucson commemorated, for the second year, the 2011 massacre which killed six and wounded thirteen, including Gabby Giffords. That massacre occurred because a mentally ill man got his hands on assault weapons that sprayed bullets indiscriminately. From my point of view, the only use for assault weapons is to compensate for bad aim. And if you can't aim, you shouldn't have a gun.
Robert Laybourn
Robert Laybourn Subscriber
Jan 15, 2013 04:50 PM
I recall reading an account of an emigrant train coming upon a group of bison for the first time and in their eagerness to kill a buffalo they brought out a few rusty muskets and fowling pieces. They had no idea how to hunt or shoot the buffalo and were not successful. I imagine that this scenario played out with similar results more often than not.
Stephen Smith
Stephen Smith Subscriber
Jan 15, 2013 08:59 PM
It is called a magazine not a clip. A magazine is what is used to feed the firearm itself, whereas a clip is used to feed the magazine. Any fact checkers in the office these days?
Jonathan Thompson
Jonathan Thompson Subscriber
Jan 16, 2013 08:21 AM
Stephen: You got me! Sort of. Technically, a clip and magazine are not the same. However, because they've been used interchangeably so often, Merriam-Webster now defines clip as: "a device to hold cartridges for charging the magazines of some rifles; also : a magazine from which ammunition is fed into the chamber of a firearm." Despite the fact that Merriam-Webster endorses my usage of "clip," I've changed it to "magazine" to be more accurate. Thanks for catching the error.
Ridahoan Ahoan
Ridahoan Ahoan
Jan 21, 2013 04:09 PM
That's a well-written piece. Of course, lots of 'western' symbols were probably more the product of Hollywood or Nashville, such as wearing a hat indoors, swearing around women, and sporting jeans and cowboy boots.

But family history suggests that packing a revolver has been pretty common among cattlemen when out on the range, primarily as a tool to put down an animal, but for some of the more handy a means to procure an opportunistic dinner as well. Certainly not the best tool for that. It also seems more common for farmers around here in Idaho to use a handgun rather than a long gun for the same purpose, probably considering that one can approach these animals up close.
All in all, though, I'd have to agree with you. As I remember it, the ranchers never wore their handguns for any kind of costume, and in general a weapon was not something to display, not only because it could invite theft or trouble, it just wasn't seemly. Usually it would be teenagers visibly packing, probably just a teenager thing trying to live up to some romantic myth.

Family history also tells of miner's strikes being subdued with deputized militia armed by boxcars of rifles shipped in just for that purpose, which supports your notion that weapons were not all that common, at least among the miners.

On the other hand, the few times I was lucky enough to meet some of the old timers, old men in the 1970's and 80's, out in Central Idaho's Wilderness, they had rifles in hand-made scabbards when on horseback (went nicely with their furs and buckskin), and sometimes I noticed holstered revolvers hung on nearby stakes when bedded down. It is possible that some of these guys may have been on the wrong side of the law -- Claude Dallas types.

For me, a large caliber handgun doesn't have much practical use in the out-of-doors, as I wouldn't trust myself to bring down a charging Alaska brown bear with one (and AK is the only place I would worry about that), nor am I good enough to rely on head shots for birds. For long trips where one may need to supplement your food it's hard to beat a 22 as a break-down rifle or long-barreled pistol. However, large clips of this lightweight ammo does make sense for this purpose.

I would certainly agree that military style weapons (eg AR-15s) are not traditional around here, seems to be a bleed over from isolationist groups, though I do have an old advertisement here without a date for Thompson Submachine guns being marketed to ranchers. But in this day and age of the Culture Wars, I'm not surprised to see them toted as a symbol of allegiance. Personally I wouldn't worry about it much -- seems a distraction to get worked up over symbols that, at least numerically speaking, contribute little to the total number of violent murders committed in this country.

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