Whether the Old West was relatively violent or peaceful and what role guns played in that violence or peace are questions that will keep historians frothing until the cows come home.
But one thing is clear: The defeats of the James Gang at Northfield, Minn., and the Daltons at Coffeyville, Kan., do not prove that an armed citizenry keeps the peace ["Wild West Wisdom," Free for All, July 24]. Those kinds of events were extremely rare. Of some 200 stagecoach, train and bank robberies west of the Mississippi between the mid-1860s and early 1900s, few were thwarted by armed civilians.
Two reasons come to mind. The bandits almost always had the advantage of surprise; and your average person, even armed, was not inclined to go into battle just to save the train's registered mail or the bank's receipts.
As for the overall level of violence in the West, perhaps the cautious view is that the level of turbulence was relatively high (the result of men, alcohol, brawls, domestic disputes, feuds, ethnic divisions and guns), though not in every locality. A recent study by San Diego State University Prof. Clare V. McKanna Jr. found that homicide rates in the West generally were higher than those in the eastern cities of the era, and in some cases higher than the levels in today's bloodiest cities.
For example, Trinidad, Colo., had a homicide rate 10 times that of New York City's. Over a 40-year stretch, 1880 to 1920, Gila County, Ariz., had an average homicide rate equal to Washington's today.
Why some localities in the Old West had lower homicide rates has received little attention, but somehow I don't think it was because their citizens carried more guns.