Gun control was tougher in old Tombstone

Chris Wheeland and Cecilia Barron at the O.K. Corral.
Chris Wheeland and Cecilia Barron at the O.K. Corral.
By Bob Drogin
Sunday, February 6, 2011

TOMBSTONE, ARIZ. - 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 O.K. 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. Indeed, 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, a few 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 clip.

Hours after the rampage, Pima County Sheriff Clarence W. Dupnik appeared to partly blame Arizona's lax gun laws for the violence, saying that 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. Similarly, with 88 crimes in total, the town's crime index per 100,000 was higher than the national average, 475.5 compared with 319.2.

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