By MARC McDONALD
Despite the exaggerated violent stereotypes perpetuated by dime novels and Hollywood, the so-called Wild West wasn't quite as violent as we've been led to believe over the years.
Take, for example, the 1881 "Gunfight at the O.K. Corral," the most famous shootout in the history of the Old West. A mere three people died in this gunfight---an event that would be barely noticed in today's blood-soaked America, where many thousands of people are gunned down annually.
And yet, the O.K. Corral shootout has come to symbolize a wild, lawless West. It's part of the mythology of America that NRA gun lovers claim captures the "rugged individualism" and essence of what our nation is all about (as they furiously work to oppose any and all gun legislation as downright "un-American").
There's only one problem: the image of the Old West that exists in the popular imagination is largely fictional. It's all part of a myth that was created in the late 19th century by the dime novel authors, who enthralled their breathless, eager readers back East. The "Wild West" fantasy created by the dime novel was later taken up by generations of Hollywood films.
Any serious historian will tell you that the truth about the Wild West is rather more mundane. The Wild West era, in fact, was considerably less bloody than the violent reputation it has garnered over the years.
In fact, the exploits of the famous Wild West outlaws were often exaggerated. Take the most famous and notorious outlaw of them all: Billy the Kid. He was reported to have killed 21 men, "one for each year of his life."
The reality was more mundane. Billy the Kid's real name was Henry McCarty and he was born in New York City, of all places. And in truth, he likely only killed only two to four people. In fact, his exploits wouldn't even rate a front page story in today's violent America.
The only reason Billy the Kid is known at all today is because his killer, Sheriff Patrick Garrett, published a fictionalized, wildly exaggerated account of The Kid, hoping to cash in on McCarty's story by hyping it to the dime novel audience of the time.
The dime novelists had to exaggerate the exploits of the Wild West's most notorious killer in order to sell their books. By contrast, no writer today would need to exaggerate the actions of a Charles Whitman or Cho Seung-hui to horrify their audience.
Still, today's gun nuts tend to often point to the Wild West era in making their arguments that guns are somehow an inevitable, integral aspect of American life and culture. The problem is, these people get their ideas about the Wild West from watching John Wayne movies, rather than reading actual history.
Occasionally, a Hollywood film will attempt to actually portray a realistic aspect of the Wild West. For example, Clint Eastwood's 1992 film, Unforgiven depicted a Wild West locale in which a city ordinance requires people entering the town to hand over their guns to the sheriff's office. The ordinance is harshly enforced. At various points in the film, newcomers to the town fail to observe the law. They are then visited by the sheriff, who forcibly disarms them at the barrel of a gun (and viciously beats them for good measure).
Gasp! Isn't this gun control?
The NRA gun nuts went ballistic when Eastwood's film was released. They claimed Eastwood was "inventing" history. When serious historians rose in Eastwood's defense to point out that many Old West towns did in fact have such policies, they failed to silence the NRA gun nuts who were upset that their John Wayne wet dream fantasies of the Old West were, in fact, bullshit.
Here we are, a century later, and there are less gun control laws on the books today in many areas of the U.S. than there were in many parts of the Old West. Despite what today's gun nuts would have us believe, in most of the U.S., it is still remarkably easy to buy a gun these days.
Of course, you'd never guess this was the case, if you listen to the NRA's hysterical propaganda. The NRA would have us believe that guns are already heavily regulated in America today and that the feds are on the verge of kicking in our doors and confiscating every last gun in the nation.
However, if you take a close look at the specific issues that drives the NRA ballistic these days, you realize just how weak gun control laws are in this country.
Take, for example, the NRA's furious, ongoing opposition to the Brady Bill. This modest legislation does nothing more than simply require a check on the backgrounds of gun buyers for criminal activity. And thanks to the NRA, the law is filled with enough loopholes to drive a truck through (such as the gun show loophole).
It's hard to imagine any sane person opposing the Brady Bill. But the NRA took up the case and raised such a hysterical fuss that one might have guessed that the law called for nothing less than the repeal of the Second Amendment.
Despite what the NRA would have us believe, controls on guns in America have actually weakened over the past quarter century. For example, when George W. Bush was Texas governor, he signed a "concealed-carry law" at the NRA's bidding. When he did so, Texas joined 22 other states that since 1986 had made it legal to carry concealed weapons. Today, some 48 states allow some form of concealed carry.
Bush also signed a bill denying Texas cities the ability to sue gun manufacturers (so much for his lip service to the idea that local entities ought to be able to conduct their affairs without meddling interference from state government).
And speaking of gun control ordinances, as Wikipedia points out, the O.K. Corral shootout itself was sparked by Virgil Earp's efforts to "enforce Tombstone's law prohibiting the carrying of deadly weapons."
The fact is, the Old West was downright safe, compared to today's blood-soaked streets in America. For one thing, no one in the Old West ever had to face down a lethal killing instrument like a modern-day Glock semi-automatic pistol. Firearms in the Old West were downright crude and tame, compared to a Glock.
If even a Wild West town like Tombstone could have strict gun control ordinances, why can't we do the same as a nation today?