Wild West Syndrome

Bitter has a post up about the disconnect between the editorial board of a Florida paper and the rest of the country. I was going to give the entire editorial a good hard fisking, but I couldn’t get past the first two lines.

Will the country be like the Wild West if the Supreme Court loosens legal restrictions on guns in the Second Amendment case that justices will hear today?

Not that America is as far removed from the Wild West as the nation would like.

I haven’t seen a case of Wild West Syndrome in a while, honestly. I was kind of hoping that anti-gun people had gotten over the whole “cowboy shootouts” phase, since concealed carry laws have not led to blood in the streets or western-movie style showdowns.

The problem with the whole analogy is that the “Wild” West wasn’t all that wild. The link goes to an excellent chapter of the book Violence in America by Roger McGrath which examines the violent crime rate of two “Wild West” towns in comparison to modern cities and contemporary 1800’s towns as well. I encourage you to read the entire link, it is a bit of a read but it’s well worth it. For the sake of brevity, I’ve also lifted his concluding paragraph.

Popular wisdom says that generations of living on and conquering frontiers have made Americans a violent and lawless people. Popular wisdom is wrong. So is much scholarly literature that has drawn conclusions about violence and lawlessness from anecdotal evidence and specious assumptions. The kind of crime that pervades American society today has little or no relation to the kind of lawlessness that occurred on the frontier if Aurora and Bodie are at all representative of western communities. Robbery of individuals, burglary, and theft occurred only infrequently and rape seems not to have occurred at all. Racial violence and serious juvenile crime were absent also. The homicides that occurred almost invariably resulted from gunfights between willing combatants. The old, the weak, the innocent, the young, and the female were not the targets of violent men. In fact, all people in those categories would have been far safer in Aurora or Bodie than they are today in any major U.S. city. Even most smaller cities and towns are far more crime ridden and dangerous than were Aurora and Bodie.

There simply is no justification for blaming contemporary American violence and lawlessness on a frontier heritage. The time is long past for Americans to stop excusing the violence in society by trotting out that old whipping boy, the frontier. On the contrary, it would seem that the frontier, instead of representing America at its worst may have, in many respects, represented the nation at its best.

Assuming for the moment that he’s correct (which I believe he is, as my own research into the issue correlates nicely), then where did we get this “Wild West” impression of random gunfights in the streets and rampant lawlessness? Try Hollywood and the western genre.


  1. Syndrome.

    Anyway, you know as well as I do that popular perceptions of history often have more influence than the facts of said history.

  2. The real ands serious irony here is that very much of the Wild West’s Wildness (like the 60’s 60’s-ishness), was the overhyped product of Newspapermen telling tall-tales and made-up stories to sell papers to rubes Back East – it was the “Yellow Journalism Narrative” writ quite large.
    Another good book that examines the legend is Frontier Violence: Another Look, by W. Eugene Hollon. He draws attention to the fact that, “In Abilene, supposedly one of the wildest of the cow towns, ‘nobody was killed in 1869 or 1870. In fact, nobody was killed until the advent of officers of the law, employed to prevent killings.’ Only two towns, Ellsworth in 1873 and Dodge City in 1876, ever had five kilings in more than one year.” With another irony being that it was “Only Ones” who initiated the killings…

  3. Most of the shooting was between outlaws; the law-abiding citizens didn’t have to worry too much about violence.

  4. Here is another source to dispel the “Wild West” myth:


    “In 1880, wide-open towns like Virginia City, Nev., Leadville, Colo., and Dallas had no homicides.
    By comparison, Cincinnati had 17 homicides that year.
    From 1870 to 1885, the five Kansas railheads of Abilene, Caldwell, Dodge City, Ellsworth and Wichita had a total of 45 homicides, or an average of three per year – a lower homicide rate than New York City, Baltimore and Boston.
    Sixteen of the 45 homicides were committed by duly authorized peace officers, and only two towns ” Ellsworth in 1873 and Dodge City in 1876 ” ever had as many as five killings in any one year.”

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