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Bill Kurtis gives a lesson on the origins of America’s gun culture

9-1-10 WBBM channel 2 studio 22 W. WashingtSt. Chicago Bill Kurtis new set prior their first newscast tonight as WBBM's

9-1-10 WBBM channel 2 studio, 22 W. Washington St., Chicago Bill Kurtis on new set prior to their first newscast tonight as WBBM's new regular 6 p.m. anchor team. [Keith Hale/Sun-Times]

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Updated: February 10, 2013 5:51PM

In the search for answers to the problem of guns in America, we would be wise to consider the years 1870 to 1885 when young drovers terrorized the cowtowns of the West. We’re led to believe by the media — dime novels and wild West movies — that gangs of these hooligans fresh off the trail from Texas would ride into Kansas towns, shooting and hollering and heading for the local saloon filled with gamblers and prostitutes. This was the lawless West where our gun culture was born.

Who among us can’t conjure the image of the steely-eyed roughneck spitting tobacco through his beard while he fingers the hammer of a Navy Revolver resting nervously in its holster, coiled and ready to strike? The pulse quickens. Beads of sweat furrow down his temple through caked trail dust. And then, fast as lightning, the eyes flash. The gun is out. An explosion pushes lead out of a barrel. And a body falls.

It’s a wonder anyone survived the West. A real man had to face down evil in the barrel of a gun, probably every day. Really?

It’s hard to fathom that this allegory of the Western experience has contributed to America’s gun culture in a major way — especially since it is pure baloney.

There’s only one credibly recorded instance of a six-gun face-off. It happened in Springfield, Mo., between Wild Bill Hickok and Davis K. Tutt on July 21, 1865. It was a gambling quarrel. Hickok felt disrespected. They faced off in duel-style. Tutt fired and missed. Hickok shot him in the chest. Hickok was tried for manslaughter and acquitted — self defense.

In the span of 15 years between 1870 and 1885, according to Robert Dykstra, author of “The Cattle Towns,” there were just 45 homicides in the five major cowtowns of Kansas, only a few of them committed by legendary lawmen like Hickok, Wyatt Earp and Bat Masterson. The main reason was that when they rode into town they had the support of the townspeople, who passed strict gun control ordinances. In Dodge City, the cowboy handed over his gun at the edge of town. He could womanize, fight ’til he was bloody and drink himself blind. But if he tried to carry a gun, he’d be in jail. Only one person carried a gun: the lawman.

The gun myth of the West has created some of our American ideals of honor and self-defense, but we should separate facts from entertainment.

The reality is that even the wildest denizens in the world weren’t stupid enough to let their fellow citizens walk around with guns on their hips.

Bill Kurtis donated his fee for writing this column to Diane Latiker’s Kids off the Block,

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