Pierre Atlas: Romanticizing the Wild West revises history

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Pierre AtlasLast month on a movie set in New Mexico, Alec Baldwin was playing the role of an aging gunfighter when he accidentally shot and killed the film’s cinematographer and wounded its director. Ironically, the film was a product of America’s fascination with the frontier and its romanticization of gun violence.

The tragedy occurred just a few days before the 140th anniversary of what has become known as “the most infamous 30 seconds in American history.” On Oct. 26, 1881, the gunfight at the OK Corral took place in Tombstone, Arizona Territory.

This rare instance of a shootout has become an iconic element of America’s “Wild West” mythology. Pretty much every Western novel, movie and TV show includes gunfights inspired by Tombstone. Even an episode of “Star Trek” featured the OK Corral, with Kirk, Spock, Scotty and McCoy—all armed with six-shooters—channeling the Clantons and McLaurys facing off against the Earps and Doc Holliday.

Americans have long been fascinated by tales of gunfighters, but historians have demonstrated that actual gunfights were quite uncommon on the frontier. The real West was not as wild as portrayed by the entertainment industry of the day in dime novels and Wild West shows or by the modern entertainment industry’s latest Westerns on streaming platforms. But to quote the line from the classic 1962 film “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance,” “This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”

The gun industry has also capitalized on romanticized frontier imagery. Starting in 1878, at the behest of its New York City distributor, Colt branded and marketed the .44-40 Winchester caliber version of its revolver as the “Frontier Six Shooter.” Winchester, in its 19th century advertisements, dubbed its Model 1873 rifle “The Gun that Won the West.” Today, hosts of manufacturers offer working replicas of classic frontier firearms, and even the newest firearms are marketed using themes of rugged individualism and gunfighting that we associate with the Wild West.

The selling power of frontier mythology was demonstrated most clearly at a recent Bonhams auction, where the Colt revolver Sheriff Pat Garrett used to kill Billy the Kid became the most expensive firearm in world history. As an ordinary collectible, the gun would be worth a few thousand dollars. But its Wild West provenance sent its value into the stratosphere: It sold for more than $6 million.

The Old West was awash in guns, but actual gun violence was rare. One reason was that many frontier towns had strict gun laws. Dodge City banned the carrying of any firearms within town limits. Had Dodge’s fictional marshal, Matt Dillon, enforced the town’s real laws, few episodes of “Gunsmoke” would have ended in a gunfight. The OK Corral shootout was sparked by the Clantons and McLaurys allegedly entering Tombstone armed. They were violating Ordinance No. 9, which declared it “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.”

As constitutional law professor Adam Winkler observes in his book “Gunfight,” “Wild West lawmen took gun control seriously and frequently arrested people who violated their town’s gun control laws.”

In the coming months, the U.S. Supreme Court will rule on the constitutionality of a New York law requiring “proper cause” to carry a firearm outside the home. Gun-rights advocates are calling this law draconian. But it doesn’t seem all that different from the one Wyatt Earp enforced.•

Editor’s note: One of the classes Atlas is teaching this semester is gun culture and policy.


Atlas, a political scientist, is a senior lecturer at the Paul H. O’Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs at IUPUI. Send comments to ibjedit@ibj.com.

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2 thoughts on “Pierre Atlas: Romanticizing the Wild West revises history

  1. I can help the professor out by boiling down our current “gun culture and policy”. There are two and only two categories of individuals that carry and use firearms. Criminals and law-abiding citizens. Law enforcement professionals are included in the law-abiding citizens category at about the 99.99% level as there are very rare instances of a law enforcement professional crossing the line, which then changes their status to “law breaker”. Red states typically have less strict gun laws and typically have lower rates of gun violence. Blue states like Illinois and New York have some of the most strict gun laws and yet some of their largest cities have gun violence and gun homicide rates that are off the chart high. A simple deduction on this anomaly is that criminals don’t abide by gun laws, and most other laws as well, while law-abiding individuals … wait for it … do abide by laws. Thus the need for law-abiding individuals to have their constitutionally guaranteed right to own and carry firearms honored anywhere at any time as the simple, effective means to defend themselves from criminals. Additionally, the ridiculously high firearm homicide rates of large cities like Chicago and New York City also cast serious shadows on the competency and will of the elected government leaders in those cities to provide adequate public safety.