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Not-So-Wild West 

Myth: The American West has always been heavily armed

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On summer evenings in the former mining town of Silverton, Colo., the staccato sound of gunshots used to echo through otherwise quiet streets. A cast of stereotypical Old West characters riddled one another with bullets, as the legendary gunfighters did once upon a time in the West. Except that those kind of shoot-’em-ups didn’t happen out here. Not really.

Back in the 1950s, those fake Silverton gunfights followed a well-timed schedule, erupting when the narrow-gauge train, loaded with tourists, rolled into town. Eventually, a group of history-minded citizens gained influence and rejected the violent charade. By the 1970s, the fake gunfights were no more.

The West has always been a land of myths, where visitors can live out their dreams — and their misconceptions. Perhaps the most persistent one is that of the gunslinging West. Today, the notion persists that Westerners define themselves by their love of guns.

Like most legends, the gunfighters’ West derives from a morsel of truth. Yet, nourished by pop culture, that myth has very little in common with the history that spawned it. Even in late 19th century, Silverton’s citizens didn’t walk the streets with sidearms. There were occasional gunfights, as when a 19-year-old recidivist shot the town marshal dead in 1881.

It’s not that guns weren’t around. Hunters were armed, and at least one early newspaper editor was known to have a pistol stashed in his desk. It was not an armed citizenry that kept law and order, however, but the marshals and sheriffs. Rare flare-ups between the area Utes and white settlers were generally handled by federal soldiers. The only assault rifle back then was the Gatling gun, which was available only to soldiers at a few military posts.

Comb through the region’s early newspapers, and you’ll find only occasional mentions of killings by gun. Madmen in the Wild West didn’t shoot up schools or even saloons. Believe it or not, teachers weren’t armed.

Dynamite was a far more ubiquitous and more important symbol of the Old West’s culture. This was mining country, after all, and miners and road builders relied on explosives to make a living — and a killing. Dynamite was easy to access; in 1975, a bomber blew the Silverton Depot off its foundation.

Today, explosives are tightly regulated. Lobbyists for the explosives industry, however, have yet to proclaim that the only thing that can stop a bad guy with dynamite is a good guy with dynamite. And though I’ve known of people dynamiting ponds to more easily catch fish, I have yet to hear any politician arguing that regulating the sale of explosives is a threat to our traditional hunting-and-fishing culture.

Firearms are not integral to Western culture or identity. Take away our semi-automatic guns, our high-volume ammo clips, limit the amount of ammunition we can buy, and we’ll still be Westerners. It’s time to follow Silverton’s example and stop reducing ourselves and our region to a silly caricature manufactured by Hollywood and supported by a gun industry looking to peddle more of its deadly wares. 

Jonathan Thompson is a senior editor at High Country News (hcn.org). He lives in Durango, Colo.

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