Are We Safer than the Citizens of Dodge City?
By Jim Higginbotham
Sometimes the answers to seemingly complex social problems are hidden in plain sight. Social engineers, lawmakers and “experts” from all around spout off an endless stream of statistics to support or rationalize their position one side or the other of the “gun control” issue. Now I don’t like the term “gun control” for it is ambiguous and usually used to mask the real intent of those advocating it so for the purpose of this discussion let us just say “more restrictive guns laws”. One might think that this is a relatively new idea, it is not! You can go back to the Roman Empire and find the existence of cross bow control, you can look to England and find attempts to disarm the various colonists under their imperial thumb – the American colonists come to mind as an unsuccessful attempt to debar the use of arms to an indigent population. There are many examples of the failure of laws which attempt to disarm the violent in our society but none are more graphic as examples or easier to measure in effect than those in the “wild west” of America circa 1870-1900.
Having read many statistical studies, and peer reviews of same, I can say that most modern “scientific” studies try to factor in way too many variables and cover way too much in their data base. You see, statistics, generally, are used by those who want to prove a point to confuse the simple minded who might just have to vote on the issue. Or as Jeff Cooper so eloquently puts it – “Statistics, in the main, are used by scoundrels to confound fools”. So let’s look at a simpler time and place where at least we can identify the factors.
First let us dispense with some fictitious ideas and misconceptions that many of us hold. Much of my early study in the firearms field dealt with the gunfighters of the “old West” – Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday, Johnny Ringo, etc. The guys who walked in blood up to their ankles and killed a man before breakfast most mornings – right? Would it surprise you to learn that there is no record that Doc Holliday ever shot a man before the shootout at the OK Corral in Tombstone about 5 years before his death – in bed. He had been involved in a couple of barroom fights but it is recorded that he actually never hit anybody with his pistol (he most likely was wielding a shotgun in Tombstone that October day). That man of deadly reputation Wyatt Earp likely never killed a man until that day either though he did fire, along with Jim Masterson (the seldom mentioned brother of Bat and Ed) at a rowdy cowboy who ran through town one night. One bullet struck the cowboy in the arm and he later died but no one knows if it was Wyatt’s or Masterson’s.
Now one might argue that the records of the times were not as detailed or well organized as those compiled by the FBI today but there are indeed records of what happened in most of the towns who survived. Unlike the East, where many court houses were burned during the Civil War, many of the post war western town records survived just fine. Tombstone has an abundance of interesting court cases to peruse as does Dodge City, Wichita and Hays City. Almost every gunfight or bar fight that resulted in serious injuries ended in an arrest and is recorded since there were charges filed and a hearing after most of them. If you are willing to dig deep enough you can find a pretty good idea of just how violent the “Wild West” really was – not for a moment suggesting that isolated incidents of extreme violence may not have been perpetrated in the sparse expanses of wilderness or desert and went unreported.
The first shocking thing you learn when you start “mining’ for such information is that it was much safer to live in a place like Dodge City than in a place like New York City or Chicago – my how things change, right? If you look real hard at the record of Dodge City, Kansas from the time the cattle herds started shipping from there until the last year as a “cow town” – a span of about 15 years you can come up with approximately 15 people who died by violence. Yep that’s fifteen, not 150, in a period of 15 years. An average of 1 per year. However in the worst year, five people died so there were several years in that 15 in which no one was killed in Dodge City. A couple of those are famous incidents which get told and retold. One is the cowboy who was killed by the officers Earp and Masterson. One was Bat’s brother Ed who was mortally wounded by one of two cowboys named Walker and Wagner, who were in turn shot by Bat Masterson (both survived the shooting). Another, not so well known homicide was the accidental shooting of Dora Hand by a drunk on the street when the bullet went through several walls and hit her in the head as she slept.
Now everyone knows of the famous sign which orders all the visitors to Dodge City to check their guns. What you might not be aware of is that there were, in effect, actually two Dodge Cities adjacent to one another, split by a spur line of the railroad called the “deadline”. The sign was there for mostly for the benefit of those who visited the saloons and brothels south of the deadline. While It was the denizens on the “other side of the tracks” who were required by law to disarm when they ventured into town. So, in this little microcosm of western society we have an excellent comparison of just how effective restrictive gun laws actually are. Now of the 15 people who perished by violence in Dodge City’s most violent years, just how many do you think fell victim North of the Deadline. If you guessed 0 you would be right! Now isn’t that amazing. You take a town and put all of the miscreants, rebel rousers, and assorted ne’er-do-wells in one area, forbid the carrying of weapons by those who frequent a certain part of town, and ALL of the homicide occurs there. “Gun Control” works just as well today as it did then. Dodge City is not the exception. Tombstone, where the Earps moved, enjoyed the same proscription on going armed, though it was truly a violent place, the violence was contained in the area near the controlled section of town. There are numerous other examples.
While the above may come as a surprise to you, it has not gone unnoticed by scholars. In his book The Western Peace Officer, Frank Prassel notes: “As a place of lawlessness the frontier’s spectacular reputation is, therefore, largely without substantiation. It is true that a band of daring outlaws, enraged over ‘land theft’ might sweep down from their mountain stronghold to terrorize an isolated village, take command of a courthouse, and shoot or capture local peace officers. But these events did not occur in the distant past, they tool place in 1967. While a passenger going through Nevada during the 1860s might certainly have been in some danger of hijacking, he probably enjoyed greater security than his counterpart flying offer Florida in a jet airliner a century later….”
We’ve come a long way, haven’t we. Several thousand gun laws later we still aren’t as safe as the citizens of Dodge City.
Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition
The Western Peace Officer. By Frank Prassel, University of Oklahoma Press 1972
Queen of the Cow Towns, Stanley Vestal, Harper & Row, 1952
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