Autry associate curator Jeffrey Richardson next to the Tombstone mining district map (Photo by Tessie Borden)
Autry associate curator Jeffrey Richardson next to the Tombstone mining district map (Photo by Tessie Borden)

Tombstone’s Reputation, in Light of Tucson Shooting, Touches Off Another Political Debate

Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik’s comments on the day after the horrific Tucson shooting that left six people dead, Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords (D-​Tucson) fighting for her life, and 13 other people wounded have again put a little Arizona silver mining town, Tombstone, at the center of a political debate.

Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik (Photo by Chris Morrison, Associated Press)

“Well, I think we’re the Tombstone of the United States of America,” Dupnik said at a Sunday press conference, speaking about the state’s gun laws. “I have never been a proponent of letting everybody in this state carry weapons under any circumstances that they want, and that’s almost where we are.”

On Saturday morning, as Giffords met with constituents at a local supermarket, a gunman fired several shots, killing six people, including nine-​year-​old Christina Taylor Green and U.S. District Judge John M. Roll, and wounding Giffords, who sustained a point-​blank shot to the head, and 13 others. Jared Lee Loughner, 22, has been charged with five federal counts and is expected to face state charges in the shooting.

At the Sunday press conference, Dupnik criticized an Arizona law, signed by the governor last April, that allows people to carry concealed firearms without the need for a permit. He immediately came in for both praise and criticism from people on either side of the gun control debate.

But what of the town that has come to represent the American West at its wildest? Is it now a prism through which to observe a country deeply divided by its politics?

Autry associate curator Jeffrey Richardson next to the Tombstone mining district map (Photo by Tessie Borden)

Jeffrey Richardson, Autry associate curator of Western history and popular culture, pointed out that the famous shootout at the O.K. Corral took place ostensibly because of gun laws.

“They were trying to enforce the fact that you were not allowed to carry weapons into Tombstone, whether they were concealed or out in the public,” Richardson said. “And Tombstone had very strict gun laws.”

However, they were only one aspect of the fight.

“It was more than just a battle between good guys and bad guys, white hats and black hats,” Richardson said. “This was a conflict that had a lot to do with politics, it had a lot to do with finances. This was really something about money and who controlled what industries in this particular town at that time.”

Indeed, a mining district map of the town of Tombstone on display near the entrance to the Autry’s Spirit of the Cowboy gallery serves to illustrate some of the contentious issues of the day as mining claims overlap each other, some more than once.

Some have drawn a comparison between the deeply divided politics of the time and those of today.

Detail from the Tombstone mining district map showing overlapping claims (Museum of the American West, 98.139.1)

“Vitriolic politics served as the backdrop in both cases,” writes Georgetown University history professor Katherine Benton-​Cohen in Politico. “Most historians of the Shootout at the OK Corral now agree that partisan divisions between the mostly Republican Earp faction and the Southern Democrat Clantons and McLaurys helped stir the pot. The violence can be viewed as a last battle of the Civil War — the bloodiest political conflict of them all.”

Richardson said it’s natural for people to want to blame tragedies like Saturday’s shooting on factors like partisan politics, as a way to make sense of them. But to him, that’s too simplistic a reaction.

“I think it simplifies the story almost grossly to connect that to what happened,” he said. “What happened was a tragedy and to say that whether it was Bill O’Reilly on one side or Keith Olbermann on the other, that they sort of contributed to this or were in any way a part I think doesn’t do justice to the horrible nature of what happened. I just don’t see that particular connection.”

Benton-​Cohen, who is from Arizona and has written Borderline Americans: Racial Division and Labor War in the Arizona Borderlands, makes a case for gun control in her article, and for demythifying conventional ideas about the West.

“Arizonans, myself included, love to tout their vaunted independence and Western values,” she

Detail on the mining district map showing an engraving of the town of Tombstone (Museum of the American West, 98.139.1)

wrote. “But when we perpetuate the idea that Arizona is some unchanging Wild West, we fall into the trap of a myth that only serves to embolden those who refuse to support commonsense restrictions on purchasing firearms.”

Benton-Cohen’s piece generated its own firestorm of both pro and con criticism, as have others. But Richardson points out that the West of the 1880s was not particularly wild, and the popular vision of it is mostly inaccurate.

“Throughout the West in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries, there were very strict gun laws,” he said. “You couldn’t carry concealed weapons. You couldn’t have your gun out in the open when you made your way into town.”

Richardson says that the aftermath of the shooting may in the end be an opening of sorts.

“I almost think that we’re using this opportunity to discuss something we legitimately should, which is the terrible political environment that we live in, where the two sides simply cannot talk,” he said. “If out of this horrible tragedy, it leads to a better political environment, even if for a day or two days or a month … if this does lead to a better political environment, I think it would be a good result.”