Did Texas’ forefathers know more about handguns than today’s politicians?

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Timothy "Longhair Jim" CourtrightFort Worth’s White Elephant Saloon today is among the city’s top tourist attractions, but at about 8 p.m. on February 8, 1887, it was the scene of one of the most famous gunfights in Old West history. The White Elephant’s owner was gambler Luke Short, who counted among his friends Wyatt Earp and Bat Masterson. Short had a reputation as a quick shot and a man not likely to back down from a fight. That did not stop former City Marshal T.I. “Longhair Jim” Courtright from trying to shake down Short for protection money. Angry that Short was refusing to pay, a drunken Courtright called Short into the street outside the White Elephant.

Illuminated only by flickering gas lights, Courtright stood in the street with a .45 caliber pistol holstered on each hip. Short, something of a dandy in his dress, stood on the sidewalk with his thumbs hooked into his vest while offering assurances that he was unarmed. Short opened his coat to show no weapons. Courtright knew Short carried a pocket gun and shouted, “Don’t you pull a gun on me!” Courtright swiftly yanked out one of his pistols. Short was faster. His first shot took off Courtright’s thumb. The former marshal shifted the pistol to his left hand. He was not fast enough. Short shot him several more times. Courtright lay dying as Policeman John J. Fulford arrived. “Ful, they’ve got me,” Courtright said, with a dying gasp worthy of a dime novel.

The Texas Senate – the same body that this week likely will debate allowing for the open carrying of pistols – by chance on the day after the White Elephant shooting took up a bill to enhance the penalty for the crime of carrying pistols in Texas. The prohibition on carrying six-shooters in the state was not, as some claim, a racist Jim Crow law to intimidate African-Americans. The law was meant to reduce crime and calm fears that Texas was a dangerous place, fears that were keeping people and business from moving to the state.

As the open carry debate has unfolded this year, one of the most egregious arguments I’ve heard against the Texas 1871 prohibition on carrying pistols is that it was retained in the era after Reconstruction so that racist whites could intimidate African-Americans through selective enforcement. That is as valid as saying the laws against murder were kept on the books for the purpose of selective enforcement.

This idea that gun control laws have racist roots has caught on nationally thanks to the promotion of a paper by gun rights advocate Clayton Cramer, who is best known for having debunked the anti-gun research of academic Michael A. Bellesiles. During the Senate testimony on the open carry legislation, I heard more than one witness refer to the idea of Cramer’s work, and it has received some coverage in state news reports on the handgun debate:

“One of the noticeable goals was to ensure that black people did not shoot back to the guys in the white hoods,” said Clayton Cramer, an author and historian who has written extensively on the selective enforcement of early gun laws. “A great many of the southern states relied on the fact that they could enforce these laws fairly arbitrarily.”

I can’t tell you what happened in other Southern states, but I can tell that in Texas it’s bunk. That’s not to say the gun laws were not sometimes used selectively against African-Americans, but post-Reconstruction Texas did not retain gun control as a Jim Crow law. Gun control was a good economic development tool for luring immigrants to Texas.

In the six years after the Civil War, violence in Texas was common, with an estimated 1,000 murders a year occurring with the victims being emancipated slaves and “Union men.”  That was a murder rate of 122 per 100,000 Texas residents at the time. The highest rate in the state since 1996 was 7.7 per 100,000.

Today, we think of these Reconstruction murders as occurring by lynching, but many and perhaps most were committed with handguns. While the killers often were known, prosecutors ignored murder unless committed by a freedman or a Union loyalist. Governor Edmund J. Davis in 1871 wrote the Bastrop County judge complaining that in ten months there had been seven murders, three whippings and a church and school burned by “disguised Ku-Klux,” but there had not been a single prosecution.

In this atmosphere, the Legislature passed and Davis signed into law legislation to ban the carrying of pistols and certain other weapons in Texas, excepting frontier counties where Comanche still raided. To promote enforcement, the fines would go to the county road funds.

Murder remained a selectively enforced crime even under the first post-Reconstruction Democratic governor, Richard Coke. In Wharton County, African-American voters elected a white Republican merchant named Newton Baughman to the state House in 1874, but he was so fearful for his life that he never came to Austin to take his seat. When local whites threatened to kill him for doing business with blacks, Baughman appealed to Governor Coke for help. Coke issued a public statement that he could not protect Baughman because it was a local matter. Nightriders shortly afterward surrounded Baughman’s bed and shot him so many times that he had holes in his feet. Too bad state Representative-elect Newton Baughman didn’t have a panic button.

When the state Constitutional Convention of 1875 met in Austin, there was very little discussion of the provision giving the Legislature the power to regulate the carrying of weapons. A prominent Galveston lawyer wanted to add language giving lawmakers the power to prohibit as well as regulate the “bearing of arms.” With almost no debate, the amendment was tabled in favor of leaving weapon decisions to the Legislature

Perhaps nowhere in Texas does the Jim Crow argument ring more hollow that in Clay County near Wichita Falls. Life was good for the citizens of Clay County in 1877. The county estimated that there were 138,000 cattle with a market value of $1 million grazing there, and local farmers had produced 60,000 bushels of wheat. And there was not a single saloon. A local went East to promote the county for immigration, but he faced audiences worried about Texas as a state of gunplay. “If a man stays sober, Texas is as safe a place as Philadelphia,” he said. But just to be on the safe side, the Clay County citizens of 1877 put together a petition to ask the Legislature to ban the carrying of all firearms within the county’s boundaries. There was only one African-American family in the entire county. Restricting firearms was about economic development.

Did the pioneers of Senator Craig Estes’ district know something about economic development that he does not? Estes is the author of the Senate bill open carry for concealed handgun license holders.

Civic leaders in across Texas time and again fought to have the law against carrying pistols enforced in the name of economic development and attracting new residents. “We should have a law directing the prosecution of every man carrying a pistol as guilty of intent to commit murder,” the Dallas Herald wrote in 1879.

A railroad detective named Currie in 1879 shot two famous New York actors, killing one, as they dined at a railway station in Marshall. When Currie was acquitted the next year on grounds of drunken insanity, the nation reacted with a view that Texas had a gun culture that made it an unappealing place to live. “The ruffian Currie’s pistol did more than kill one man and wound another; did more that repel immigration from Texas; it wounded the good fame of the south,” wrote the New Orleans Times.

The biggest problem was that many Texans were ignoring the law, as was most law enforcement officers. An anectodal review of police blotters stories from the era shows the weapons law most often was used as a means of incarcerating disorderly drunks and men who beat their wives. Most of the reported arrests were of whites. But was the law selectively enforced against African-Americans? The Dallas Morning News of 1888 reported: “The police say that the pistol law has about as much effect on the sporting element of the blacks as water on a duck’s back.”

About the same time as the White Elephant shootout, Fort Worth Mayor H.S. Broiles went on a crusade to enforce the Sunday closing law against saloons. He hired four “special” police who used the handgun law as an excuse to jail barkeeps who were open on Sunday. City Alderman E.G. Daggett, said “people in other states, whence must come as immigration and land buyers, believe there is too much six-shoorter in Texas.” Daggett proposed that even police forego wearing sidearms during the daylight hours. “The war is over, and Fort Worth is not a ‘frontier’ town. There is too much official six-shooters all over Texas – it looks bad and conveys a false impression of our people and condition,” wrote the Fort Worth Gazette of 1887.

With the White Elephant gunfight as a backdrop, the Senate took up House Bill 51, hoping that increased penalties would prompt law enforcement to take action to end “the pernicious practice” of carrying pistols. The Rev. William F. Allen of Denton wanted minimum sentences of 30 days in jail. Senator William Henry Burgess argued the law violated the U.S. Constitution, but Senator James Jarvis of Fort Worth said the gunfight in his city was a “striking example of the results of unlawfully carrying arms.”

The debate was lengthy an interesting, and ultimately the bill passed into law. Nothing about the debate supports Cramer’s contention that the Texas handgun law was maintained to intimidate blacks. In fact, the life of a senator voting for the bill indicates the opposite. Senator T.O. Terrell of Kaufman County said if it takes jail time to make the law effective, he was for it. “Then nice men and good boys would stop carrying pistols.”

Terrell was the Senate’s only Republican. Terrell was from a slave-owning family, but his father died when he was only a boy. A slave named Tom became a father figure to him, teaching him how to farm, hunt and fish and grow into a man of substantial value. When Tom died in 1909, Terrell paid for a lengthy newspaper obituary in tribute of the man who raised him. “He lived to a fairly good old age. He saw the country to which he was brought in childhood changed from a wilderness to a garden,” Terrell wrote. “He enjoyed the respect and esteem of all who knew, and he has gone to his grave, severing the strongest links that connected me with the memories of my childhood. Shall we meet again.”

J.O. Terrell does not sound, to me, like a man who would have voted for a handgun law so it could be used to intimidate an African-American man he loved like a father, a man he hoped to meet again in heaven.

(Photo: Timothy Isaiah Courtright, Photograph, n.d.; (http://texashistory.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metapth27780/ : accessed March 15, 2015), University of North Texas Libraries, The Portal to Texas History, http://texashistory.unt.edu; crediting Tarrant County College NE, Heritage Room, Fort Worth, Texas.)

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