A Historical Look Down the Barrel of Gun Control in Arizona
A billboard just outside Tombstone, Arizona, promises “Gunfights Daily!” and tourists line up each afternoon to watch costumed cowboys and lawmen reenact the bloody gunfight at the O.K. Corral with blazing six-shooters. But as with much of the Wild West, myth has replaced history. The 1881 shootout took place in a narrow alley, not at the corral. Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday weren’t seen as heroic until later; they were initially charged with murder. And one fact is usually ignored: Back then, Tombstone had far stricter gun control than it does today. In fact, the American West’s most infamous gun battle erupted when the marshal tried to enforce a local ordinance that barred carrying firearms in public. A judge had fined one of the victims $25 earlier that day for packing a pistol. “You could wear your gun into town, but you had to check it at the sheriff’s office or the Grand Hotel, and you couldn’t pick it up again until you were leaving town,” said Bob Boze Bell, executive editor of True West Magazine, which celebrates the Old West. “It was an effort to control the violence.”
Guns and the debate over whether the weapons need regulation has long been a mainstay of the political conversation in Arizona, where firearms violence spawned a counterculture long before statehood. During the pre-statehood 1910 constitutional convention, Arizona’s founders included a special protection for individual gun rights in the state constitution that went beyond the language of even the Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
“The right of the individual citizen to bear arms in defense of himself or the state shall not be impaired,” the draft constitution said.
Decades later, in 1994, Arizona passed its original law allowing concealed weapons to be carried by state-permitted gun owners. The 1990s saw the start of the Legislature’s more aggressive defense of gun rights and the national controversy it brought. For the past 20 years, Arizona generally has been at the forefront of expanding gun rights on the state level.
In the summer of 2009, the State Legislature passed a law that allows Arizona residents to carry concealed weapons into bars and restaurants that serve alcohol. In the spring of 2010, Gov. Jan Brewer took Arizona one step further when she signed the “Firearm Freedom Act” that permits certain weapons and ammunition manufactured in Arizona to be sold without following federal registration or regulations. In April of 2010, Gov. Brewer also signed another bill that allows Arizonans to carry concealed guns without a permit.
Consequently, Arizona’s gun laws are currently among the most lenient in the nation. Under the legislation passed in 2010, guns are permitted almost everywhere in the state except doctors’ offices and some businesses. It is one of three states, along with Alaska and Vermont, that allow people 21 or older to carry concealed weapons without a permit. Concealed guns may be carried into bars as long as the gun owner isn’t drinking, and guns are permitted on school grounds as long as the weapon is unloaded and the owner remains in a vehicle.
The federal Gun Control Act of 1968 prohibited mail-order gun sales and was the first major gun legislation since the 1930s, when gangland warfare prompted Congress to regulate fully automatic machine guns and sawed-off shotguns. Decades later, Congress banned ownership of machine guns that were not registered as of May 19, 1986.
Federal gun-control momentum returned to Capitol Hill in the 1990s, and again Arizonans played key roles in the legislative drama. President Bill Clinton signed the Brady Bill, more formally known as the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act, in 1993. It was named for Jim Brady, the White House press secretary wounded in gunman John Hinckley Jr.’s attempted assassination of President Ronald Reagan outside a Washington, D.C., hotel in 1981. The following year, lawmakers included a 10-year ban on certain semiautomatic assault weapons in an anti-crime bill, which has since lapsed.
Pro-gun activists and lobbyists decried the Brady Bill and the assault-weapon ban as unconstitutional. In 1994, an Arizona sheriff challenged the constitutionality of the Brady Bill’s provision that required state and local law-enforcement officials to conduct five-day criminal background checks on gun buyers. U.S. District Judge John Roll, who was slain in the January 8, 2011, mass shooting near Tucson that also wounded U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., agreed with Graham County Sheriff Richard Mack that the requirement was a federal violation of states’ rights under the 10th Amendment.
The Brady Bill case eventually made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which also sided with Mack on the point. The sheriff became a cult hero to gun-rights enthusiasts, writing a book titled “From My Cold Dead Fingers: Why America Needs Guns.” Mack lamented that no armed citizen was able to shoot the gunman once he opened fire on Giffords, Roll and others attending the congresswoman’s constituent event outside a grocery store.
“I wish I’d been there to protect him,” Mack said of Roll.
The debate continues…