Gun Control in the Old West


To Provide against Carrying of Deadly Weapons (1881)

Section 1. 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.

Section 2: This prohibition does not extend to persons immediately leaving or entering the city, who, with good faith, and within reasonable time are proceeding to deposit, or take from the place of deposit such deadly weapon.

Here we go again; as our politicians work on gun control legislation, it might surprise you to learn that there was more gun control in the Old West than there is in modern times.

According to Adam Winkler, professor and specialist in constitutional law at UCLA School of Law, Tombstone had stricter laws on carrying guns in public in the 1880s than it has today. “Today, you’re allowed to carry a gun without a license or permit on Tombstone streets. Back in the 1880s, you weren’t.” This was true of many frontier towns.

According to Stephen Aron, professor of his history at UCLA, the first law passed when Dodge City formed a government in 1878 was one prohibiting the carrying of guns within town limits.

Leaders and merchants considered restrictive gun laws necessary for encouraging people to move to their towns and bring families. This was considered a necessary part of creating a stable community, rather than a transient one.

Gun laws were passed quickly in the Old West. That was because they were instigated at the local level rather than by Congress.  The Federal government stayed out of gun battles.

The laws did not ban guns. Owning a gun in the Old West was a matter of survival. The laws simply stated where and how you could carry them. Guns and knives were not allowed within town limits.  Visitors were required to leave their weapons with the sheriff, livery or saloon upon entering town. They received a token which they would exchange for their guns upon leaving.

Some challenged the laws in court, but most lost.

Did the gun laws work?  If we use Tombstone as an example, the answer would seem to be no.  In his book on crime in the Old West, historian Roger McGrath concluded that it was widespread gun ownership that deterred criminality in these areas in which law enforcement had little authority or ability to combat crime.

Then as now, there are no easy answers, and the battle rages on.

Would it surprise you to know that Hollywood exaggerated crime in the Old West? Scholars have established that it was not as violent as most movies and novels would have us believe.



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29 thoughts on “Gun Control in the Old West”

  1. It doesn’t surprise me the laws were stricter in the town limits.

    Doesn’t surprise me Hollywood has glorified the Old West into a gunslinger free for all.

  2. I’m not surprised. If it was as violent as it is in most movies and books, most of us might not even be here. I loved your blog and history lesson.

  3. Good morning! Loved this blog! I giggled when you asked if it would surprise us to know about Hollywood exaggerating!!! Hollywood & media exaggerate & instigate so many issues! Lol Have a great day!

  4. Good morning,
    Love the blog and I love the history of the time period. I really enjoy your books. And no, Hollywood and the media don’t surprise me anymore, neither do they hold much of my attention.

      • Give me a John Wayne marathon and I’m a happy girl. Otherwise I’ll be the one sitting quietly in the corner totally involved in the book I’m reading.

        But I agree with your earlier comment. Its not the gun laws, but the lack of enforcing the criminal laws when a person commits a crime. Enforce the laws, punish the law breaker and not the person defending their family.

  5. not surprised that hollywood exaggerates gun use and crime in the west. it is what they do. exaggerate. I have read about certain towns having a weapon control and that really it didnt work so much. But made the residents of the town feel better at the time. As long as I have been alive, I remember that there was always something about guns/knives. Seems to be an age old battle.

  6. NOTHING about Hollywood surprises me anymore! AND there will always be lawbreakers and as soon as they find out the law says “NO GUNS” in a certain area they know they can bring their gun & be safe to rob, kill, shoot the place up ect….because all the “law abiding” citizens don’t have their guns! It’s a no brainer!

  7. Hollywood (and media) certainly loves to make things out not as they actually were. The same problem as back then Is the same now: gun laws don’t work, the outlaws always disobey. I like that they wanted to make the towns people feel more safe, that is admirable, but leaving them defenseless isn’t smart in my humble opinion. As you stated it definitely is not a new problem! The jump to “more laws/rules” after any problem or disaster isn’t the answer. You nailed it: one rule, thou shalt not kill.
    Thanks for a good history lesson and discussion!

  8. Hi , I enjoyed your blog, thank you so much for sharing about this. Yep, I not surprised about Hollywood exaggerating, they probably wanted to make sure that people would keep on watching the movies. Have a great rest of the week and stay safe.

  9. I’m not surprised Hollywood exaggerated it. Not by how they do things today. Sin has been a problem since the Garden of Eden, and Hollywood has put it front and center in the name of drawing in crowds and making money. The sad thing to me is how many people by in to the Hollywood hype. One thing then that did deter crime was the prisons weren’t like they are today and you didn’t have all of the appeals. If you did the crime, you’d better be prepared for whatever sentence you were given, as judgment was sure. One of my history teachers would throw in little tidbits every now and then about things like that.

  10. I’m not surprised that Hollywood has sensationalized violence and crimes. Thank you for sharing this interesting post!

  11. Sadly the gun issue induces knee-jerk reactions seldom open to discussion. We are gun owners, shotguns and rifles for hunting. I was never a hunter, but was a pretty good shot. The gun laws of the past in the West are an indication that they realized even then that toting around guns in certain situations was asking for trouble. Altercations that would normally end with a fist fight escalate, and tempers never get a chance to cool off before serious injury and death result if a gun is available. Reasonable carry laws should not be a problem to law abiding people. Our state just passed a law eliminating any training or permits for both open and concealed carry. That is just crazy. I was sitting next to someone a little over a year ago when I heard a clunk. He had stuffed a pistol in his pocket and it had fallen out on the concrete floor. We are lucky it didn’t go off.
    The proliferation of military equipment being purchased and carried around should concern us all. The Bill of Rights refers to a well regulated militia. Not a bunch of people who feel they have something to prove or a perceived grudge to settle. Too many are members of militias and other fringe groups. I have worked with programs dealing with them. People have no idea how much danger these groups present to the country. Military weapons are not for hunting or fun target practice. They were made for one purpose, killing people. Sorry for the soapbox speech. We would all be safer if common sense reentered society and how it deals with this issue.

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