TIME magazine is noting that this week marks the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Gun Control Act of 1968, a bizarre coincidence of history because today marks the 137th anniversary of a fatal shootout in Tombstone, Arizona Territory that many suggest was ignited by enforcement of a gun control ordinance.
The famed “Gunfight at the OK Corral” occurred Oct. 26, 1881. That the battle didn’t really happen in the corral, but in an empty lot next to a photography studio, has been overwhelmed by a romanticized history of the confrontation between the Earp brothers—Wyatt, Virgil and Morgan—and their friend, John H. “Doc” Holliday, and a group of cowboys including Frank and Tom McLaury, Ike and Billy Clanton and Billy Claiborne.
But, as noted in the final moments of John Ford’s classic “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance,” when legend becomes fact, print the legend.
The 30-second gun battle, in which 30 shots were fired, left both McLaury brothers and Billy Clanton dead. Claiborne and Ike Clanton fled. Morgan and Virgil Earp, and Holliday, were all wounded.
All of this over enforcement of an ordinance in Tombstone that forbade the carrying of firearms within town limits? Well, not exactly, depending upon whose historical research one relies. Politics and crime were also involved, but the cowboy combatants were not happy with the disarmament ordinance that, had it been challenged in the courts today, just might not pass the constitutional smell test.
That was in another time, long before then-President Lyndon B. Johnson signed GCA ’68 into law following the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert Francis Kennedy the previous Spring. That sweeping federal law banned interstate “mail order” gun sales and set in motion a decades-long battle over the Second Amendment that continues today, especially in Washington State, where the single ballot issue regarding firearms anywhere in the United States will be decided Nov. 6.
Initiative 1639 seeks to prohibit sales and ownership of so-called “semiautomatic assault rifles” by anyone under age 21. In so doing, it would classify every semi-auto rifle ever manufactured, including hunting and target models, as “assault rifles.” It would require registration and training, annual background checks on owners, so-called “secure storage,” waiver of medical privacy by gun buyers, a fee on paperwork for the exercise of a constitutional right and it creates a new crime of “community endangerment.”
Law enforcement groups are lined up against it, leaving one to wonder how the badge-toting Earp brothers might have reacted. Newspaper editorials are split, leaving one to wonder if some editorial boards have forgotten that the Second Amendment stands next to the First in the Bill of Rights. There is a strong grassroots effort to defeat the measure.
And then there is GCA ’68, which was—as have all other gun control proposals since—touted as a crime fighting and prevention tool which, as body counts in Chicago, Detroit, Washington, D.C., Baltimore, New York, Newark, Los Angeles, St. Louis and other large cities might attest, has not lived up to its promise.
When the British occupation tried to enforce gun control in April 1775, the result was a revolution in which a comparatively ragtag Continental Army supported by militia and frontiersmen defeated the most powerful army on the planet at the time. That’s another lesson that seems to have been lost on Hollywood history. There is no small irony in the fact that I-1639 is being opposed by an underfunded grassroots effort, fighting a billionaire-funded gun prohibition lobby that seems determined to turn a constitutional right into a regulated privilege.
The “Gunfight at the OK Corral” was also about gun control, more or less, and the result was three dead, three wounded and an aftermath that included more homicides on both sides. Among the subsequent dead were Morgan Earp, and cowboys Frank Stillwell, William “Curly Bill” Brocius and John Ringo.
History is a great teacher that raises challenging questions. Attempts to prevent violence via gun control regulations, ordinances or acts of Congress seem almost invariably to be followed by more violence, not less.
Is it time to try a different tack, something that targets criminals while leaving honest armed citizens alone?
Well, if it saves just one life.