Tell ‘Em the West Was Not Wild

Published on March 6, 2013

615px-WyattEarp-andothersby Donald Joy
Clash Daily Guest Contributor

The next time you’re talking to some liberal hand-wringer who shrieks in horror like Dr. Zachary Smith from the old Lost in Space TV show at the prospect of ordinary citizens carrying guns, there’s a way you might be able to calm them down somewhat and even give them a dose of education in the process.

Disabuse them of the myth they’ve been fed over the years, mostly by Hollywood, about there having once been a chaotic, lawless milieu of wanton gunplay and violence known as “The Wild, Wild West” of the American frontier.  Eminent scholars of history and economics have proven that such a situation never really existed, despite the fact that guns were prevalent and played an important role in the lives of people. 

Instead of the abject lawlessness depicted in entertainment and in embellished accounts of historical tales, thorough research has shown that those who settled the Western areas of this continent brought along with them, overall, a sturdy understanding of and respect for property rights, established common law, as well as criminal and contract law.        

Contrary to the popular narrative, bank, train, and stagecoach robberies were relatively rare, as were the infamous shoot-outs of legend.  According to Drs. Thomas Hogan and Neil Meredith of West Texas A&M, there were no successful bank robberies before 1900!  Theft and murder were less common than in most major U.S. cities today.  Ranchers, businessmen, and claimholders formed associations by which to protect their interests against threats to their emerging recognitions of private property.  

In their 2004 book titled The Not So Wild, Wild West: Property Rights on the Frontier, Stanford economists Terry L. Anderson and Peter J. Hill build on more than 30 years of research to argue their case.  They emphasize that despite the lingering images of gunslingers and outlaws pitted against each other in perpetual conflict, the real story is moreover one of everyday people cooperatively working together to carve out both formal and informal legal institutions and tame the West.  The pair’s research mainly approaches the subject from the standpoint of economics, especially discussing the themes of constitutionalist, or social contract approaches to ordering society, compared to anarchocapitalism, or voluntary recognition of private property rights with minimal enforcement, and how it all played out in the American frontier. It can be a fascinating exploration for those of us concerned with the proper roles of government and the use of force – which of course means the role of guns in society.

There’s no shortage of legitimate research on the topic.  The work of Anderson and Hill is buttressed by that of people like Mark Ellis, professor of history at the University of Nebraska, who in 2007 published “Law and Order in Buffalo Bill’s Country, Legal Culture and Community in Lincoln County, Nebraska 1868-1910.”  Ellis doesn’t deny that gunfights, vigilante mobs, and “frontier justice” did sometimes happen in the American West, but asserts that such occurrences were the exception – his work simply shows that the people who settled the frontier brought the concept of legal justice with them, and applied it.  “If they didn’t have a courthouse, they built a courthouse. If they didn’t have a jail, they built a jail.” In the conclusion of the book, Ellis writes that he found that “19th century plains settlers created an environment where law and order rather than lawlessness prevailed, even in the wild and woolly climes of Buffalo Bill’s country.”  Ellis’ book took second place in the Scribes Book Award from the Legal Writers of America, along with other laurels and accolades. 

Other researchers, such as Bruce Benson, Roger McGrath, Eugene Hollon, John Umbeck, and Thomas DiLorenzo have published exhaustive treatises on the subject, further solidifying the body of knowledge about what the frontier was really like, and why. 

Many will find it not surprising that the overall research on the subject points to the real cause of violence in the West being the Westward expansion of government – specifically the U.S. government’s policies towards the Plains Indians, and the change, after the Civil War, from a militia to a standing army.  Those wishing to read more on this can easily Google Thomas DiLorenzo’s excellent article, “The Culture of Violence in the American West: Myth versus Reality,” in the Fall 2010 issue of The Independent Review.     

As we advocates of the 2nd Amendment are painfully aware, the anti-gun argument often goes along the lines of this: By allowing everyday people who aren’t police officers or soldiers access to guns, especially in public places like parks, shopping malls, theaters, schools, and so on, our society surely invites the kind of violent eruptions of gunplay and savage killings depicted in movies and TV shows about the Old West.  They mistakenly point to areas like Chicago, New Orleans, and Detroit, where the proliferation of illegal guns in the hands of criminals coincides with runaway murder and overall violent crime rates.  

But we know the score; the law-abiding, responsible citizens in those urban kill zones have been effectively disarmed.  In the absence of a true, well-regulated militia as intended by our nation’s founders – that is, every sober adult in the population trained and equipped in the responsible use of firearms – gangs rule the streets, while police mainly just mop up in the aftermath of daily and nightly carnage.  

When the police cannot or will not enforce laws already on the books, cannot or will not protect people, what are the good citizens to do?  The answer is not more laws.   

An armed society is a polite society.

Image: The “Dodge City Peace Commission” June 1883; by Camillus S. Fly, ca. 1890. 111-SC-94129
Source:; public domain

get-attachment (1)Following his service in the United State Air Force, Donald Joy earned a bachelor of science in business administration from SUNY while serving in the army national guard. As a special deputy U.S. marshal, Don was on the protection detail for Attorney General John Ashcroft following the attacks of 9/11. He lives in the D.C. suburbs of Northern Virginia with his wife and son.