This column should be accompanied by the theme from "Gunsmoke," the old television series (1955-75) about Dodge City in 1873. The marshal was Matt Dillon, and he often could be found in the Longbranch Saloon, chatting up the proprietress, the fetching Miss Kitty. In many an episode, as I recall, some cowpoke would amble into the Longbranch and Dillon would have to tell him the rules: No guns. Not once can I recall any hombre -- and some of them were plumb ornery -- saying anything about the Second Amendment. In Dodge -- both the real and fictional one -- even Charlton Heston would have to disarm.
As a result of this policy, the Economist magazine tells us, real-life Dodge averaged just "1.5 killings per cowboy season" from 1876 to 1885 -- a statistical gem that casts the Wild West and the gun control debate in a somewhat different context. The magazine was citing the works of two historians, Michael Bellesiles and Robert Dykstra, to make the argument that Americans were not always so enamored of guns. In fact, at one time a man who hunted for sport was considered a fool.
But it was the reference to Dodge, the epitome of the cow town, that so impressed me. My mind raced back to "Gunsmoke" and, of course, the gun control rules enforced by Marshal Dillon. The good people of Dodge (pop. 1,200) had the sense to figure out that without guns their community would be a safer place. Of course, Dillon only had to face the occasional bad guy. The National Rifle Association had no lobbyist in Dodge.
The April tragedy at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., rekindled the gun control debate in this country. Ever since the assassination of John Kennedy in 1963, this has been an on-again, off-again thing. With each tragedy, with each murder or massacre, we ban some sort of gun. Each time, after a beat, the gun industry learns how to cope, and guns remain pervasive.
As for me, each of these tragedies produces a moment of incredulity. I am a city person, born and raised, and so I did not know you could send away for a rifle as Lee Harvey Oswald did or, as we learned from the Littleton tragedy, you could buy a gun at something called a gun fair. Where I come from, you can't get booze that easily.
Now I learn of yet another way to get guns. The 21-year-old white supremacist who celebrated the Fourth of July weekend by killing two people and wounding nine others before he killed himself, bought one of his guns, a Bryco .380 semiautomatic pistol, from an intermediary who had been legally buying one a week from a dealer in Illinois. The dealer did nothing wrong and neither, until he sold one of the guns to Benjamin Nathaniel Smith, did the intermediary. What's stunning is that in this country you can buy a gun a week, and it is all perfectly legal.
It is also perfectly crazy. The country is awash with guns. Columbine was awful, but it is not unique. The other day, six members of one family were shot to death in Atlanta -- a tragedy, by the way, that got minimal national attention, maybe because the victims were black. The killer then shot himself.
In the Washington area, innocent people get killed all the time from drive-by shootings. The same happens in New York and elsewhere. The cops, of course, are edgy. Reach for a cell phone, and they'll shoot you. They fear guns. It is a reasonable fear. So many guns. So easy to use. So effective.
Bill Bradley and Al Gore are on the right track. Both have proposed tough gun control measures. They stop short, though, of what's really needed -- restricting handguns to just those people who absolutely need them.
Still, both men are at least talking sense. Not so the Republicans. Gov. George W. Bush signed a law in 1995 that allowed Texans to carry concealed guns. The other GOP presidential candidates are just as silly about guns -- or just as afraid of the gun lobby. They all pretend to be upholding American tradition and rights, citing in some cases an old West of their fervid imagination and suggesting remedies that can only be considered inane.
In the GOP version of "Gunsmoke," Marshal Dillon would have permitted guns in the Longbranch and posted the Ten Commandments as well. Within days, of course, it would have been riddled with bullets and a television series based on that Dodge City would have been what we have today: not an entertaining drama but a senseless tragedy.