Guns still an issue in modern-day Dodge City

? In the days when Wyatt Earp was making his name as a lawman in Dodge City, he banned guns north of the railroad tracks that ran through the frontier town, where most families lived.

Cowboys had to check their weapons at a gate or saloon, and the city imposed a $100 fine for anyone caught with a gun north of the tracks.

That was 1878, and the identification of Dodge City with those Wild West times now pulls tens of thousands of tourists to the town in far western Kansas every year.

Thanks to the Kansas Legislature, guns still are on people’s minds, at the police station, the Working Man’s Guns shop and the Bad Habit sports bar.

More than 125 years after guns were banned in the Dodge City of Earp’s day, state legislators are considering a bill that would allow Kansans to carry concealed weapons. Dodge City’s top lawman in 2004 dislikes the idea enough that he already has talked to other local officials about finding a way to ban concealed weapons in his town should the bill pass.

But at the Bad Habit, Wade Walters, a Hutchinson resident who stopped by for an afternoon drink, said he definitely would get a permit.

“Who’s going to mug someone if you think the S.O.B. has a Glock in his pocket?” Walters said. “Everybody I’ve talked to said it reduced street crime a great deal in other states where they allow it.”

Holdout state

Despite the shoot-em-up heritage of its early cowtowns, Kansas would be among the last states in the nation to adopt a concealed carry law should the bill pass.

This photo from the 1890s shows Dodge City peace commissioners, back row from left, W. H. Harris, Luke Short and Bat Masterson, and, front row from left, Chas. Bassett, Wyatt Earp, L. McLean and Neal Brown. Earp banned guns in the residential areas of the famed Wild West town in the 1870s. As the 2004 Legislature takes up a measure that would allow Kansans to legally carry concealed weapons, Dodge City Police Chief John Ball is seeking ways for his town to opt out of the law.

Besides Kansas, only Illinois, Nebraska and Wisconsin bar residents from carrying concealed weapons, though nine states place some restrictions on who can receive a permit.

Kansas legislators approved a concealed-carry bill in 1997, but then-Gov. Bill Graves vetoed it.

Gov. Kathleen Sebelius has said she favored allowing concealed carry only for retired law enforcement officers, and her spokeswoman said last week it was doubtful Sebelius would sign a broader bill.

Under this year’s bill, approved by the House on Thursday and sent to the Senate, any Kansas resident who is at least 21, a legal U.S. citizen with no felony record and who meets a few other requirements would be eligible for a concealed-carry permit.

Eligible applicants would receive a permit if they pass an eight-hour training course and pay a $150 fee.

Lesson from the past

For Dodge City Police Chief John Ball, the local history contains a lesson that makes him dislike the bill.

Ed Masterson, the lesser-known brother of famed lawman Bat Masterson, was city marshal in 1878 — and Earp’s boss. A cowboy on the south side of town carrying a concealed gun — most men who carried them did so openly then — shot and killed Ed Masterson.

Ball, a 23-year veteran of the local police force, doesn’t want any of his officers suffering the same fate. He sees the bill as “a political thing.”

“My big concern for officers in Dodge City is that we already worry enough about who’s carrying guns,” he said. “Now we’ll have to worry about who’s carrying them legally.”

Ball said he has talked to other officials about options for banning concealed guns in the city, though this year’s concealed-carry bill says communities could not opt out.

There was no such impediment to local firearms policies in 1878. The north side of Dodge City had a firearms ban because residents considered that the civilized part of town. Among other restrictions, women weren’t allowed in saloons there.

On the south side, very little was forbidden, prostitution flourished and shootouts were common, said Cassie Sanko, chief curator of the Boot Hill Museum.

‘Packing heat’

The ban on the north side didn’t mean people didn’t carry guns there. Plenty of people carried illegal concealed weapons for protection, Sanko said, and there were about 25 holes in the walls of the Long Branch saloon to prove it.

Pam Markel, who with her husband, Don, owns a Garden City gun shop called Working Man’s Guns, said she imagined a lot of people today carried concealed weapons even without a law allowing the practice and, “You just don’t know about it.”

She said she didn’t think allowing people to carry concealed weapons would send people flocking to buy a gun.

“I’m more scared about driving down the road at night with all the drunks out than I am about getting shot,” she said.

Markel’s not sure she would carry a concealed gun if the bill becomes law, but she thinks she should at least have that right.

“The only problem I have with it is trying to find a place in my purse to put one,” she said.