Historic perspective on gun control in Wyoming

Rifles are displayed at the Buffalo Bill Historical Center in Cody, Wyoming. (Frank Swift/Flickr — click to view)

Rifles are displayed at the Buffalo Bill Historical Center in Cody, Wyoming. (Frank Swift/Flickr — click to view)

Essay by Phil Roberts
February 26, 2013

As a historian of Wyoming’s past, I find it annoying when I hear someone allege that something we’re about to do “goes back to the way it once was in Wyoming” or “it’s part of our state’s legacy” — particularly when the assertion is totally untrue.

Almost always, such a claim does not come from “history” but only from the speaker’s vivid imagination or from memories of fictional Western films or TV.  A good example is the debate over carrying firearms — open or concealed in every town — regardless of what the town residents want, supposedly like it was in the Wyoming of the “old West.”

Phil Roberts

Phil Roberts

Well, sorry, those legislators who said they were trying to “return Wyoming to where everyone in every town carried a gun” were wrong. What they were claiming wasn’t the way it was, at least in most Wyoming towns.

In a random check of the earliest town ordinances for six Wyoming towns, I found that five of the six had historical ordinances specifically stating that it was against the law to carry a firearm, either openly or concealed, in the town limits. Violations could lead to fines and jail time.

Of course, I’m not saying that the laws were always enforced or that everyone coming to town agreed with their ordinances. Outlaws and the criminal elements roaming the West wouldn’t have agreed with them. Nonetheless, the passage of such ordinances shows what pioneers in Wyoming towns valued and how they aspired to create safe, law-abiding communities.

In the case of Cheyenne, the ordinance was passed Sept. 30, 1867, just 88 days after General Dodge picked the spot where the “magic city” was to be.

Proponents of one 2013 gun bill, denying towns the right to set their own rules, said that uniformity was necessary or someone visiting a town with a strict ordinance “might get confused.” What if someone doesn’t know they were violating one town’s firearms ordinance?

Cheyenne town fathers in 1867 took care of that problem:  “It shall be the duty of the Police officers to arrest any person found in the act of violating this ordinance except in the cases of strangers and non-residents of this city who shall be first informed of this ordinance and allowed thirty minutes to comply herewith and should they refuse or neglect to do so within that time they shall be held answerable to the penalties hereof.”

In Worland, a regulation against carrying guns in the town limits was the ninth ordinance passed by the town council: “It shall be unlawful for any person in the Town of Worland to bear upon his person, concealed or openly, any fire arm or other deadly weapon within the limits of said town.”  It was passed and adopted unanimously by the council, consisting of several old-time cattlemen and some pioneer businessmen, on May 9, 1906, in the first year of Worland’s existence.

In Lusk, it took a bit more time from the town founding to its incorporation a decade later, but the council passed the following ordinance on Aug. 1, 1898, as the sixth ordinance adopted by the new municipality: “It shall be unlawful for any person in the Town of Lusk to bear upon his person, concealed or openly, any firearm or other deadly weapon within the limits of said town.”wyogunhistory_lusk

Casper had passed a similar ordinance a year earlier in 1897.

The one exception was Thermopolis where there were no specific ordinances against carrying open or concealed guns in town (although such action is implied in an ordinance banning firing weapons in the town limits).  It’s not to say that Thermopolis wasn’t concerned about the safety of their citizens — at least their moral safety. They passed an anti-swearing ordinance in 1904: “[Anyone], where there are either persons to be offended or annoyed thereby, [who] uses or utters obscene or licentious language or words in the presence or hearing of any female, or who shall use boisterous, profane or offensive language in any public place or upon any street of the Town of Thermopolis, which shall tend toward a breach of the peace, shall be deemed guilty of a nuisance.”

So to those 2013 legislators espousing fantasies about the state’s “Old West” history, who wanted to centralize control over firearms in Wyoming towns in state law, you were not “returning Wyoming” to anything. By not letting individual towns make the decision, you were embarking on distinctly non-Wyoming methods of trying to force everyone to think and act alike. Uniformity isn’t a quality Wyomingites, past or present, ever enthusiastically embrace. I hope you don’t waste time in the next session with such proposals and, instead, use that time to read some Wyoming history.

Phil Roberts, a native of Lusk, Wyoming, has taught Wyoming history at the University of Wyoming since 1990. A veteran of the U. S. Marine Corps, he holds an undergraduate degree and law degree from the University of Wyoming and the Ph.D. in history from the University of Washington. The author of several books and numerous articles on Western and Wyoming history, his latest book is Cody’s Cave: National Monuments and the Politics of Public Lands in the 20th Century West.

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Published on February 26, 2013

  • Mark

    Careful there, Phil. If you upset the wrong people at your pace of employment, you could go the way of the Carbon Sink.

  • Seen 2 Much

    Dodge City, Kansas, also had similar city ordinances — for obvious reasons. Many towns posted notice to check your guns with the sheriff, and in some cases, saloon and hotel proprietors insisted on checking your weapons with them if you wanted to remain on the premises.

  • ron

    I wonder if and when these laws were ever repealed?

  • Julia Stuble

    Thanks, Phil. It’s always good to get clarity about how the rugged individuals were forming community. I’ll keep hoping and pushing for changed discourse after historical clarification like this.

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