The Hulu original series “Quick Draw” is an improvisational spoof of the “Old West.” Set in Great Bend, Kansas in the 1870s, the show focuses on the town sheriff John Henry Hoyle, who has brought his Harvard education (as he says repeatedly) in criminology and forensic science to clean up crime.
In season 1, episode 6 entitled “Nicodemus,” a US Marshall from Dodge City arrives to find a suspect that he has been tracking has been killed. Attention turns to capturing the dead man’s killer, and Marshall Frank Givens focuses attention on an “escaped slave” found hiding nearby — who, as this clip shows, has the “worst alibi ever”:
Sheriff Hoyle and Marshall Givens take him to nearby Nicodemus, a town established by freed slaves. When they arrive, the visitors are surprised by some of the town’s unconventional and progressive practices, which include “flex time” to allow women to work while their husbands take care of their kids and a marriage support group. But Marshall Givens is most appalled by Nicodemus’s city ordinance requiring everyone to relinquish their firearms in order to enter the city.
But coming from Dodge City, the Marshall should not have been surprised by Nicodemus’s ordinance, since that famous Old West town also had such an ordinance, as evidenced by this photo from 1878:
Although the producers of Quick Draw attempt to be historically accurate – with historical anachronisms thrown in strictly for comedic purposes – this scene reflects a deep-seated but historically-flawed understanding of the role of guns on the American frontier. Correcting these historical inaccuracies is one of the most interesting aspects of Gunfight: The Battle over the Right to Bear Arms in America, by UCLA constitutional law professor Adam Winkler.
In Chapter 6, “The Wild West,” Winkler draws on historical research by Robert Dykstra, published in his 1968 book The Cattle Towns. Following Dykstra, Winkler observes that from 1877 to 1886 there were only 15 murders in Dodge City, an average of 1.5 per year, with some years seeing no or only one murder. From this Winkler concludes, “It turns out there really wasn’t much need to get out of Dodge” (p. 163).
The same is true of the legendary mining town of Tombstone, Arizona. The infamous “Gunfight at the O.K. Corral” has long conveyed a sense of the ubiquity of guns and gunfighting in the Old West. But the reality of Tombstone was much like that of Dodge. Winkler cites research by Richard Shenkman published in Legends, Lies, and Cherished Myths of American History (1988) that finds only 5 people killed in Tombstone’s most violent year – three of whom died at the famous gunfight (Frank McLaury, Tom McLaury, and Billy Clanton). The Western frontier of America, it seems, was “a far more civilized, more peaceful, and safer place than American society is today” (W. Eugene Hollon, cited by Winkler, p. 165).
Some would argue that this is simply evidence that “an armed society is a polite society” or would invoke John Lott’s formula More Guns, Less Crime. But the story is more complicated than that, because although firearms were not uncommon at the time, neither were regulations on the bearing of arms. As Winkler writes, again citing Dykstra, “Frontier towns . . . adopted ‘blanket ordinances against the carrying of arms by anyone.’ The ‘carrying of dangerous weapons of any time, concealed or otherwise, by persons other than law enforcement officers,’ [Dykstra] found, was nearly always proscribed” (p. 165).
Indeed, in 1879, the Tombstone city council passed a law banning the carrying of deadly weapons in the city. When Ike Clanton was arrested by Virgil and Morgan Earp in October 1881, precipitating the famous shootout, it was for violating Tombstone’s Ordinance No.9: “To Provide against Carrying of Deadly Weapons” (effective April 19, 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.
Section 3: All fire-arms of every description, and bowie knives and dirks, are included within the prohibition of this ordinance.
Winkler concludes, “The Shootout at the O.K. Corral, then, is not only a story about America’s gun culture. It is a tale about America’s gun control culture” (p. 173).
In the end, the scene in “Quick Draw” demonstrates the two central aspects of guns in American society that Winkler wants to highlight: Americans have always had a right, protected by the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution as well as many, many state constitutions, to keep and bear arms. AND governments (especially state and local) have long placed restrictions on that right.
In a later post I will review more thoroughly Winkler’s book, but for now it is worth pondering the historical reality underlying the fictitious city of Nicodemus’s ban on carrying firearms.