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Hold Your Piece
December, 2012, Page 114
Photography by Steve Craft & Brian Goddard
Arizona mining executive John Greenway’s double-action Colt .38 revolver
From territorial shootouts to 21st-century gun clubs, Arizona’s love affair with firearms is still smoking.
ehind-the-scenes footage and images of classic guns
The young man raises his handgun and takes aim, closing one eye and squinting at his target. When he pulls the trigger, the brass casing of his bullet – now speeding toward the cardboard face of what looks like a cross between Osama Bin Laden and a deranged camel – dings off the side of his noise-canceling headphones. A cloud of gun smoke drifts around the shooter’s head, leaving a slightly sulfuric smell lingering in the air.
It’s lunch time on a Friday afternoon in north Scottsdale, and this man is one of nearly three dozen people going ballistic on the 32 firing ranges at Scottsdale Gun Club, sating their appetite for shooting paper zombie-cartoon effigies of Paris Hilton and Osama Bin Laden.
On the other side of the indoor lanes, separated by a sound-proofed wall and bullet-resistant glass windows, is the vast retail area, where the muffled gunshots sound like popcorn in a microwave and the zombie targets – along with plug-able posters of big yellow smiley faces and plasma-shaped, black-silhouetted boogeymen – hang for sale. Also for purchase: handguns, rifles, shotguns, AK-47s, armor, ammo, holsters, gun cases, gun locks, gun safes, and camouflage iPad covers.
In December 2011, Scottsdale Gun Club was listed as the No. 1 ranked attraction in all of Scottsdale on popular travel website tripadvisor.com, and has remained in the top 15. At 30,000 square feet, SGC represents the largest public indoor shooting facility in the United States, with an estimated 5,000 members. Arizona is also home to the largest public outdoor range in the country, the 1,650-acre Ben Avery Shooting Facility in northern Phoenix, operated by the Arizona Game & Fish Department. There are around 63 shooting ranges across the state – one of the highest numbers in the nation (Florida, with roughly three times the population of Arizona, has the most, with about 144 ranges).
A Scottsdale Gun Club employee poses with a selection of firearms for sale.
Guns helped settle this state, and they’ve remained an indelible part of Arizona culture. From fending off bandits with shotguns on stage coaches to shooting at images of a harmless hotel heiress on a Friday afternoon, the “right to bear arms” in Arizona has gone from a necessary defense on an unruly frontier to a rite of nearly-pop-cultural passage. Here, shooting guns is a familial tradition – fathers take their sons hunting, parents proudly watch their children compete in rifle matches – and a legal right. People carry guns here because they can.
Bob Boze Bell, editor of Cave Creek-based True West magazine, says people from eastern states, where gun laws are generally stricter, often don’t understand the cultural mentality in the West, where guns are part of the heritage, and where proximity to the Mexico border and its attendant violence remains a big concern.
“Everybody was armed in the Old West,” Bell says. “You had to be... it was just a matter of course, everyday wear. If you look at it that way, then it helped settle Arizona. Guns were absolutely a part of that, and that tradition continues to this day, among the old-timers. The problem is, we have all these newcomers coming in from all over the world... and they’re bringing with them their own values, which many times are at odds with the old Arizona.”
It’s not just newcomers. Our vision of what it means to be Arizonan today is also at odds with the old Arizona. Arizonans have always had a love affair with guns; it goes hand-in-hand with our self-sufficient streak, our frontier identity. But we’ve also always had issues with gun control – Wyatt Earp grappled with some of the same challenges Sheriff Joe Arpaio faces today. The difference is that if anything, the West is getting wilder.
When the Arizona Legislature was considering a proposal in 2011 to allow the carrying of firearms on college campuses, Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik told Tucson Weekly, “We’re the Tombstone of the United States of America... I have never been a proponent of letting everybody in this state... carry weapons whenever they want, and that’s almost where we are.”
A Scottsdale Gun Club employee shoots a fully-automatic rifle on the indoor range.
Dupnik was invoking the most iconic image of Arizona’s Wild West days – the 1881 shootout behind the O.K. Corral in Tombstone – in an attempt to illustrate how Arizona was reverting back to its wild and violent frontier era. But the metaphor is myth. The truth is, the gun laws in Tombstone circa 1881 were much more strict than today’s state laws – and territorial towns, while certainly rough-and-tumble, weren’t perpetually besieged by the saloon shoot-ups and high-noon draw-downs that Hollywood later projected.
For starters, you could not legally carry a gun in territorial Tombstone. “You could wear your firearm coming into town and leaving, but when you were in town, they had an ordinance that you had to leave your guns at a couple places in town,” Bob Boze Bell says. “The cowboys traditionally left their guns at the Grand Hotel, and they would just go to the bartender and hand him their guns, and he would put them behind the bar. Then when they were ready to leave, they’d put their guns back on and leave.”
It was the no-guns-in-town ordinance that actually triggered the infamous shootout between the Clantons, McLaurys and Wyatt Earp’s group behind the O.K. Corral, when the latter demanded the former surrender their guns. Though there weren’t a lot of killings within Tombstone, and the no-guns ordinance was rightly considered a safety measure, outside the town there were many more killings, and guns were seen as a necessity because of Apaches, cowboy outlaws, stagecoach robbers, and snakes. “[Guns] were almost a requirement. You had to have them if you were traveling on the roads,” says Marshall Trimble, Arizona’s official state historian.
But overall, historians say the reality doesn’t measure up to legend. “It was not as violent as the movies would portray,” Bell says. “There are cowboys who were in Arizona in the 1880s, and they lived well up into the 20th century, and one of them said he never saw a gun pulled in his life.”
But by 1900, the legend of Arizona’s Wild West was forever locked into America’s imagination, partly borne on the boredom of east coasters reading their local papers. “They longed for something exciting in their lives,” Trimble says. “There was no television to watch, and no radio to listen to, so they devoured these stories of the Wild West. And if they weren’t true, they just exaggerated them. It was the golden age of prevarication. And they would even make up stories about fictitious gunfights out here in the West and put them in the papers. You also had the dime novels, and Arizona was rich fodder for dime novel writers. So all of this went together from about the 1880s right on into the beginning of the Western movies in the early 1900s, when they put all this wild, woolly lawlessness on the silver screen.”
Wells Fargo agent Jeff D. Milton’s Colt single action 1873 revolver
One of the reasons Arizona’s Wild West gunslinger image has endured, Bell says, is because “it’s a compelling narrative,” and one that’s been profitable from the beginning. Bill Cody took his Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show on the road in 1883, the first and most famous of many traveling troupes that reenacted (and in many cases, fictionalized) gunfights and stage coach robberies. Such shows were much loved and lucrative – within the first two years of Cody’s debut show, an estimated 10 million spectators had seen it worldwide, and it generated $100,000 in profits (roughly the equivalent of $2.7 million today).
Today, there are a number of “Wild West” shows at theme parks around the state, including daily reenactments of the shootout behind the O.K. Corral in Tombstone, live action stunt shows in the Six Gun Theater at Rawhide in the East Valley, and staged gunfights at the Rockin’ R Ranch in Mesa. One could argue that Hollywood’s glamorization of Arizona’s gunslinging past, though largely apocryphal, has become an important part of the state’s identity, and perhaps that’s why we’re loathe to let go of the Wild West reputation – because it makes us special.
In 1910, two years before Arizona became a state, Arizona National Guard rifle team captain Charles Wilfred Harris discovered that his was the only team not competing with an emblem at Camp Perry, Ohio. So Harris designed a blue, gold and red flag with a star in the center and thirteen sun rays emanating from it. In 1917, the rifleman’s design became Arizona’s official state flag.
At Arizona’s 1910 Constitutional Convention, lawmakers narrowly shot down a provision that stated, “The right of the individual citizen to bear arms in defense of himself or the state shall not be impaired.” But they also decided the anti-gun ordinances in towns like Tombstone violated the Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. Arizonans have been freely packing ever since, and fighting federal restrictions all the way.
In 1963, the same year he procured a Gatling gun for Yuma Territorial Prison, U.S. Senator Carl Hayden, an Arizona Democrat who served as sheriff of Maricopa County in territorial times, made national headlines by holding up a Colt .38 revolver at a Senate Commerce Committee meeting and joking, “Who shall I shoot?” The pistol was on a witness table with other confiscated weapons, and Hayden was there with other Arizona leaders to oppose a measure banning the sale of mail-order guns, a reaction to the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, whose alleged shooter purchased his rifle via mail-order catalogue. Republican Arizona Governor (and later U.S. Senator) Paul Fannin asked Congress to “not be carried away by the hysteria of our president’s assassination.” The ban passed despite the pleas of pro-gun politicos, including U.S. Representative George Senner, a Democrat from Arizona who stated, “Coming from the West, there is no doubt that Western feelings are strongly embedded in the American tradition of the right to keep and bear arms."
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