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This image has made the rounds in various discussions of gun control in the USA.

Sign purportedly in Dodge City, Kansas, circa 1878, saying "The carrying of firearms strictly prohibited"

The picture was purportedly taken in Dodge City, Kansas (Popular culture's quintessential Wild West town, populated by figures such as Wyatt Earp and the setting of fiction such as Gunsmoke), in 1878. Is this image genuine and firearms were prohibited in Dodge City?

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Yes, the photograph is real and comes from Adam Wrinkler's book "Gunfight: The Battle over the Right to Bear Arms in America" which he mentioned in an article on Huffington Post on the topic of gun control in the Wild West:

Guns were obviously widespread on the frontier. Out in the untamed wilderness, you needed a gun to be safe from bandits, natives, and wildlife. In the cities and towns of the West, however, the law often prohibited people from toting their guns around. A visitor arriving in Wichita, Kansas in 1873, the heart of the Wild West era, would have seen signs declaring, "Leave Your Revolvers At Police Headquarters, and Get a Check."

A check? That's right. When you entered a frontier town, you were legally required to leave your guns at the stables on the outskirts of town or drop them off with the sheriff, who would give you a token in exchange. You checked your guns then like you'd check your overcoat today at a Boston restaurant in winter. Visitors were welcome, but their guns were not.

In my new book, Gunfight: The Battle over the Right to Bear Arms in America, there's a photograph taken in Dodge City in 1879. Everything looks exactly as you'd imagine: wide, dusty road; clapboard and brick buildings; horse ties in front of the saloon. Yet right in the middle of the street is something you'd never expect. There's a huge wooden billboard announcing, "The Carrying of Firearms Strictly Prohibited."

While people were allowed to have guns at home for self-protection, frontier towns usually barred anyone but law enforcement from carrying guns in public.

When Dodge City residents organized their municipal government, do you know what the very first law they passed was? A gun control law. They declared that "any person or persons found carrying concealed weapons in the city of Dodge or violating the laws of the State shall be dealt with according to law." Many frontier towns, including Tombstone, Arizona--the site of the infamous "Shootout at the OK Corral"--also barred the carrying of guns openly.

Other cities had similarly restrictive gun laws and fines were issued for breaching them,

And one fact is usually ignored: Back then, Tombstone had far stricter gun control than it does today. In fact, the American West's most infamous gun battle erupted when the marshal tried to enforce a local ordinance that barred carrying firearms in public. A judge had fined one of the victims $25 earlier that day for packing a pistol.

"You could wear your gun into town, but you had to check it at the sheriff's office or the Grand Hotel, and you couldn't pick it up again until you were leaving town," said Bob Boze Bell, executive editor of True West Magazine, which celebrates the Old West. "It was an effort to control the violence."

The fact that firearms had to be checked explains why contemporary accounts would make reference to secreting their firearms at times,

There were no dissenters to the program. I saw at a glance that my Bunkie was heart and soul in the play, and took my cue and kept my mouth shut. We circled round the town to a vacant lot within a block of the rear of the dance hall. Honeyman was left to hold the horses; then, taking off our belts and hanging them on the pommels of our saddles, we secreted our six-shooters inside the waistbands of our trousers. The hall was still crowded with the revelers when we entered, a few at a time, Forrest and Priest being the last to arrive. Forrest had changed hats with The Rebel, who always wore a black one, and as the bouncer circulated around, Quince stopped squarely in front of him. There was no waste of words, but a gun-barrel flashed in the lamplight, and the bouncer, struck with the six-shooter, fell like a beef. Before the bewildered spectators could raise a hand, five six-shooters were turned into the ceiling. The lights went out at the first fire, and amidst the rush of men and the screaming of women, we reached the outside, and within a minute were in our saddles. All would have gone well had we returned by the same route and avoided the town; but after crossing the railroad track, anger and pride having not been properly satisfied, we must ride through the town.

As an aside, the gun check laws are the reason why we have such artifacts as Wyatt Earp's gun:

Wyatt Earp's pistol at the Red Dog Saloon Wyatt Earp's pistol at the Red Dog Saloon

  • I just visited the Red Dog Saloon in Juneau and didn't notice this! Will have to pay more attention next time. – user26368 May 26 '15 at 15:33
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A group called Everytown for Gun Safety has been propagating the claim that people never carried guns in public in the United States. Source: Everytown for Gun Safety Amicus Brief from the official website for the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.

This is remarkable given all of the photographs one can find by a simple Google web search where people are carrying guns in the Old West,

For example, here is a photo of Billy the Kid:

Billy The Kid

Their "proof" is limited to a few laws that were never enforced or short lived, such as the Tombstone, Arizona ordinance and the sign from Dodge City which was put up in 1878.

What they fail to mention is that the area of the "city" where firearms were prohibited was the area where the full time residents lived and nobody was allowed in that part of town without permission, regardless of whether or not they were armed. The dividing line or "dead line" as it was called was the railroad tracks. On the north side of the tracks is where approximately 1,200 residents lived.

On the south side of the tracks were the brothels and the famous Long Branch Saloon.

What wasn't there, or in any town, were the gunfights popularized by Hollywood. Homicides were few and most of them were committed with knives.

Source: Dodge City, The Cowboy Capital by Robert M. Wright (1913)

Some of the information contained in this post requires additional references. Please edit to add citations to reliable sources that support the assertions made here. Unsourced material may be disputed or deleted.

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    This read more as a rant than an answer. There is no claim that nobody carried guns in 1870's Dodge City, only that doing so was in violation of city ordinance. – Will Apr 17 '16 at 3:45
  • Welcome to Skeptics! Please provide some references to support your (many) claims. – Oddthinking Apr 17 '16 at 3:57
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    That photo of Billy the Kid is thought to have been taken in 1879 or 1880. Unless it was taken in Dodge City, it doesn't address the claim. It is difficult to view the book you cite. Could you please select some quotes from it that support your views. In particular, that the ordinance was widely ignored and/or short-lived. – Oddthinking Apr 17 '16 at 7:54

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