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Rick Santorum’s misguided view of gun control in the Wild West

(Photo by Scott Morgan for The Washington Post)
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BOB SCHIEFFER: “Does it bother you or does it worry you that we may be going backwards, that we’re going back to the day of the OK Corral and the old West where everybody carried a gun? Is that where we’re headed here?” 

FORMER SENATOR RICK SANTORUM (R-Pa.): “You know, everybody romanticizes the OK Corral and all of the things that happened. But gun crimes were not very prevalent back then. Why? Because people carry guns.”

— exchange on CBS’s “Face the Nation,” April 27, 2014

The Hollywood version of the Wild West is at the core of this exchange on Face the Nation, so perhaps it’s time for a history lesson. One-time presidential candidate Rick Santorum asserted that gun crimes were low back then because people had the right to carry guns. But he actually has the story backward.

The Facts

The 1881 gunfight in Tombstone, Ariz., was actually sparked by an effort to enforce the town’s Ordinance No. 9:  “It is hereby declared unlawful to carry in the hand or upon the person or otherwise any deadly weapon within the limits of said city of Tombstone, without first obtaining a permit in writing.”

That’s right, City Marshal Virgil Earp and his brother Wyatt were attempting to enforce a gun-control law that cowboys were evading — a law that was rather common in the West, according to historians.

“Carrying of guns within the city limits of a frontier town was generally prohibited. Laws barring people from carrying weapons were commonplace, from Dodge City to Tombstone,” said Adam Winkler, a professor at UCLA’s School of Law and author of Gunfight: The Battle over the Right to Bear Arms in America. “When Dodge City residents first formed their municipal government, one of the very first laws enacted was a ban on concealed carry. The ban was soon after expanded to open carry, too. The Hollywood image of the gunslinger marching through town with two Colts on his hips is just that — a Hollywood image, created for its dramatic effect.”

(One recent movie, Clint Eastwood’s 1992 “Unforgiven,” actually gets this right. Sheriff Little Bill Daggett, played by Gene Hackman, ruthlessly enforces the law that no guns are permitted within the city limits of Big Whiskey, Wyo.)

The result was that, by contemporary standards, gun homicides were relatively rare. In cattle towns such as Tombstone or Dodge City, the average number of homicides was only 1.5 or 2 a year, according to path-breaking research by Robert R. Dykstra of SUNY-Albany. The murder rate was much higher in mining towns, such as Bodie, Calif. During its boom years, the town had 29 murders a year, which translated to a murder rate three times higher than Miami in 1980, according to Richard White’s 1993 book, “’It’s Your Misfortune and None of my Own:’ A New History of the American West.” 

White noted that the violence was restricted to narrow social milieus, such as armed and drunk young men. “The towns such as the cattle towns that disarmed young men lowered the rates of personal violence considerably,” White wrote. “Those towns such as Bodie and Aurora that did not disarm men tended to bury significantly more of them.”

More recent research by Randolph Roth of Ohio State University, however, has challenged the notion that the West was not violent. Rather than look at the annual homicide rate, Roth and colleagues examined the risk of being murdered over time while living out West. “An adult who lived in Dodge City from 1876 to 1885 faced at least a 1 in 61 chance of being murdered — 1.65 percent of the population was murdered in those 10 years,” Roth wrote. “An adult who lived in San Francisco, 1850-1865, faced at least a 1 in 203 chance of being murdered, and in the eight other counties in California that have been studied to date, at least a 1 in 72 chance.”

Winkler says the two findings are not inconsistent. “Gun homicides were far more rare than Americans have been led to believe,” he said. “Most frontier towns had fewer than two homicides a year during the heyday of the Old West. Yet that is not inconsistent with Roth’s research. The homicide rate was high in these towns because the population was very small. Even one murder in a town with only a few dozen residents leads to a high homicide rate. These towns were violent, but not nearly as violent as some imagine.”

In other words, no matter how one looks at the research, Santorum has his history incorrect. People did not walk around town carrying guns—but the homicide rate was unusually high.

“The West was extraordinarily violent in the midnineteenth century, and it continued to be more homicidal than the rest of the United States until the 1930s,” Roth concluded. “The West may not have been as homicidal as movies and dime novels would suggest, but compared with the rest of the Western world in the nineteenth century and by the standards criminologists and epidemiologists use today, it was very violent.”

Responding to this column, Santorum spokesman Matt Beynon said: “In the modern U.S., the national trend is unmistakable: more firearms are in private hands than ever, more people can legally carry firearms in more public places than ever, and violent crime and homicide rates continue to decrease to historic lows.  We have repeatedly reported on this trend in our alerts, which cite to FBI crime statistics, NICS checks, and BATFE manufacturing and import figures.”

(For readers seeking more information, here’s a link to an interesting article on the various ways civil order was maintained in the West.)

The Pinocchio Test

Many people had weapons in the West, but contrary to Santorum’s claim or Hollywood lore, they generally were not able to carry them within city limits. In towns without such limits, the murder rate (or, as Santorum put it, “gun crimes”) was significantly higher.

We were tempted to give this claim Four Pinocchios, but Schieffer’s question had its own misleading elements, so we will keep this at Three. Schieffer asked Santorum if “we are going backwards,” but the irony is that in Old West, persons entering Tombstone would have needed to check their gun at the sheriff’s office when they arrived in town. No such law exists today.

Three Pinocchios

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