Once upon a time in Texas, even cowboys were forbidden to carry six-shooters in public

When it comes to gun laws in Texas, the days of the wild, wild West were much more restrictive than they are now.

John C. Moritz
Corpus Christi Caller Times

AUSTIN — Way back in the 1880s, Texas cowboys were barred from carrying six-shooters on the rugged frontier.

Imagine the outcry from the 19th century cattle barons when they learned the men they hired to protect their herds would be without one of the essential tools they needed to fend off rustlers and other outlaws.

It must have been pretty loud and plenty ugly, right? Nope. The fact is, it was the cattle barons' own idea to disarm their cowboys.

Stephen Willeford, with the AR-15 he used to open fire on the gunman in Sutherland Springs, take part in a pro-gun rally at the Texas Capitol, Aug. 22, 2019.

"In almost every section of the West murders are on the increase, and cowmen are too often the principals in the encounters," according to a June 5, 1884 article in the Texas Live Stock Journal. "The six-shooter loaded with deadly cartridges is a dangerous companion for any man, especially if he should unfortunately be primed with whiskey. Cattlemen should unite in aiding the enforcement of the law against carrying of deadly weapons."

The anecdote has taken on renewed relevance nearly 137 years after the piece was published as the Texas Legislature moves toward allowing the unlicensed carrying of handguns by most adults. 

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Modern opponents of the recent efforts, several of them successful, to expand gun rights in Texas often warn that they would take the state back to the mindset in place when the state's frontier had not yet been tamed.

But that 19th century Texas mindset was actually much different. The policy implemented by an association of Texas cattle raisers mirrored a state law that had been enacted more than a decade earlier.

“If any person in this state shall carry on or about his person, saddle or in his saddle-bags, any pistol ... he shall be punished by a fine of not less than $25 nor more than $100,” read the law passed by the Legislature in 1871.

It's fair to point out that the law went on the books, and first upheld in the state courts, when Texas was still under Reconstruction rule, meaning a lot of non-Texans commonly called carpetbaggers were in charge. But it's also fair to note that several western states that were not part of the Confederacy, and therefore not under Reconstruction, had similar laws in place.

A 2018 article in Smithsonian magazine called "Gun Control Is as Old as the Old West" notes that Dodge City, Kansas, which in popular culture is almost synonymous with the Old West, outlawed carrying guns in 1878. Numerous other Old West cities, including Tombstone, Arizona, and Deadwood, South Dakota, placed restrictions on the carrying of handguns, according to the article. 

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Texas allowed people with proper training and clean criminal records to seek a license to carry concealed handguns in 1995. The Legislature in 2015 allowed license holders to carry their handguns openly.

Separate versions of a bill that would eliminate the license requirement, and with it the training and clean criminal record mandates, have passed the Texas House and Senate this session. The two versions of House Bill 1927 must either be reconciled, or the House can simply accept the changes made in the Senate, before it can be sent to Gov. Abbott to be signed into law.

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Backers say not requiring a license to carry a handgun is in keeping with the Second Amendment. When the Old West towns placed restrictions on handguns, many of them did so for the same reasons cited by the Texas cattlemen: to keep things peaceable.

Opponents are still holding out hope that the clock on the 2021 legislative session will run out on May 31 without an agreement being reached on the bill to allow just about anyone to walk the streets with a holstered pistol.

Which, one could argue, means they want Texas to return to the days of the Old West.

John C. Moritz covers Texas government and politics for the USA Today Network in Austin. Contact him at jmoritz@gannett.com and follow him on Twitter @JohnnieMo.

John Moritz