Tuesday, November 06, 2018

The True Message of Gunsmoke

I'm the generation that grew up with the TV version of Gunsmoke starring James Arness (1955-1975). The previous version, on the radio (1952-1961), was voiced by the great William Conrad, and is actually better in my opinion, if for no other reason than there were small town profiles and "Americanization" messages between the segments to remind us of our common values and shared history of tolerance.

What's fascinating to me is that the propaganda of the National Rifle Association has almost wiped out the true history of the gun in the American west, which is that in many towns there was no "right" to carry a gun at all. This fact was stressed so often in the TV and radio series that when Gunsmoke first aired in the UK, it was titled Gun Law.

The entire plot of Gunsmoke was about how folks had to check their guns with the Marshal when they came to town. As Smithsonian magazine has noted, Gun Control Is as Old as the Old West:

The “Old West” conjures up all sorts of imagery, but broadly, the term is used to evoke life among the crusty prospectors, threadbare gold panners, madams of brothels, and six-shooter-packing cowboys in small frontier towns – such as Tombstone, Deadwood, Dodge City, or Abilene, to name a few. One other thing these cities had in common: strict gun control laws....

Laws regulating ownership and carry of firearms, apart from the U.S. Constitution's Second Amendment, were passed at a local level rather than by Congress. “Gun control laws were adopted pretty quickly in these places,” says Winkler. “Most were adopted by municipal governments exercising self-control and self-determination.” Carrying any kind of weapon, guns or knives, was not allowed other than outside town borders and inside the home. When visitors left their weapons with a law officer upon entering town, they'd receive a token, like a coat check, which they'd exchange for their guns when leaving town.

The practice was started in Southern states, which were among the first to enact laws against concealed carry of guns and knives, in the early 1800s. While a few citizens challenged the bans in court, most lost. Winkler, in his book Gunfight: The Battle Over the Right to Bear Arms in America, points to an 1840 Alabama court that, in upholding its state ban, ruled it was a state's right to regulate where and how a citizen could carry, and that the state constitution's allowance of personal firearms “is not to bear arms upon all occasions and in all places.”

Not said: most of the southern gun restrictions were designed to keep guns out of the hands of newly freed slaves.

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