Even the Old West had gun control

Growing up, one of my favorite bumper stickers claimed “The West wasn’t won with a registered gun.” I never agreed with those promoting this viewpoint, so my admiration must have been fueled by some combination of adolescent macho, love of the “old West” (and the movie “How The West Was Won”), appreciation for the rhyme and admiration for the talent of the slogan writers.

Many years later I learned the sloganeers were not telling the whole truth: in fact, the West was won when guns were confiscated. In many frontier cities, the law required those entering town to turn their guns over to the sheriff. In the Dodge City of 1879, a large billboard announced to residents and visitors alike “The Carrying of Firearms Strictly Prohibited.” Communities from Juneau to Wichita adopted similarly restrictive gun laws.

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Tombstone’s infamous “Gunfight at the empty lot near Fremont Street” — later dubbed the “Gunfight at the OK Corral,” which was nearby, for marketing reasons — developed precisely because the Earp brothers were trying to enforce the law against carrying firearms in town, which the Clantons were flouting. (Of course, sex, pride, politics and money were all implicated too. But the law against carrying weapons was the proximate cause.)

There were no polls then, so there is no way to be certain how citizens reacted to those laws, but there were no lobbies working to overturn them, no organizations mobilizing gun owners, no popular revolt against those who passed or enforced gun safety laws. Indeed, they seemed pretty popular. The first law promulgated by the good people of Dodge City banned the carrying of concealed weapons.

How things have changed. Eighty years after the OK Corral/Fremont Street fracas, in 1959, 60 percent of Americans favored a ban on pistols and revolvers, while only 36 percent wanted citizens to be able to holster such weapons. By last year, just 24 percent favored and 74 percent opposed a ban on handguns.

Partly as a result, today no one is seriously contemplating such a move. But there are several gun control measures that have enjoyed, and continue to enjoy, widespread public support.

Among the most widely supported measures is the background-check provision featured in the Senate bill currently under discussion. Since January, at least 16 national surveys, conducted by nine different pollsters, have asked Americans, in slightly different ways, about their views on background checks for all gun buyers. Support for background checks has ranged from 85 percent to 92 percent. There are very few issues on which 90 percent of Americans agree. Opposition to background checks is about equal to the number who think Elvis is still alive; many more Americans claim to have seen ghosts than oppose background checks.

Moreover, support cuts across partisan lines. In the CBS/New York Times poll, 86 percent of Republicans, 89 percent of independents and 96 percent of Democrats favored background checks for “all potential gun buyers.” Quinnipiac found 89 percent of Republicans, 92 percent of independents and 96 percent of Democrats all supporting “background checks for all gun buyers.”

Finally, it’s worth noting that support for background checks has been consistent. The longest time series on this question seems to belong to the ABC/Washington Post poll, which found 89 percent of Americans favoring background checks after the Columbine massacre in 1999, 92 percent support in 2000, and 86 percent support last week.

My guess is that residents of the Old West would have favored them too. But it is certainly true that very few issues have commanded this level of unanimity over so long a period. There is no doubt that a Congress that does not pass universal background checks for gun buyers is not representing the American people.

Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has worked for Democratic candidates and causes since 1982. Current clients include the majority leader of the Senate and the Democratic whip in the House.