Montana Territory was born in a spasm of violence. In 1863, when Bannack was the territory’s first gold mining town, Henry Plummer, the sheriff later hanged by vigilantes, got into a heated argument in the saloon. Reputed to be the best shot in the territory, Plummer rose and at point blank range emptied his pistol. Three bullets hit the man he was aiming for, two grazed bystanders, and one was lodged in the beam above the bar.
According to the territory’s first newspaper editor Thomas Dimsdale, “shooting, dueling, and outrage were daily occurrences” in Virginia City and Bannack. Granville Stuart, as close to a founding father as the territory produced, remarked that in 1860s Virginia City it “became the custom to go armed all the time.” Yet the territory’s first legislature passed a law banning “the carrying of concealed deadly weapons” anywhere within the limits of any town in the territory. Such laws were not unique to Montana. Most states banned concealed weapons in the 19th century, considering them the weapons of assassins and thieves, not appropriate for an honest man.
Even before Montana Territory was carved out of the larger territories of Washington and Idaho, territorial legislatures passed laws punishing anyone “who shall in a rude, angry, or threatening manner, exhibit any pistol, bowie knife, or other dangerous weapon.” Often called “brandishing” laws, these prohibitions were common in many western states. Cattle towns in Texas and Kansas were especially concerned about the violence from cowboys’ six-shooters, which one newspaper called “a relic of barbarism.”
Miles City, like other outposts on the western cattle trails, had a reputation for cowboys shooting up the town. In 1887 the local council passed a number of ordinances in the interests of “good order and morals,” including bans on nudity or drunkenness in public and a prohibition against shooting firearms within city limits. Many other Montana towns followed suit. After several gun deaths in the 1880s, Helena banned shooting within town limits, and the newspaper condemned the “criminal folly” of carelessly carrying guns, which made a man “more dangerous than a live rattlesnake.”
Many other Montana municipalities passed firearm restrictions as a step towards public respectability. Billings, Missoula, Philipsburg, Helena and even rough and tumble Fort Benton banned concealed weapons in town, with Helena adding a greater penalty for anyone who carried a weapon into a church, school or public assembly. Butte, Dillon, Lewistown and Kalispell, among others, made discharging firearms within city limits punishable by a fine, jail time or both.
In Montana as elsewhere during the nineteenth century, these firearm restrictions prompted no discussion of the Second Amendment. Conversations about firearms occurred in the context of the right of an individual to defend life and property paired with the duty to use minimal force. Finding that balance usually meant retreating rather than standing one’s ground, or in one Helena case, not shooting a nuisance dog if it meant nearly hitting a neighbor sitting on his own porch.
The right to keep firearms in defense of one’s life, home, and property is enshrined in the preamble of Montana’s Constitution, first passed in 1889 and continued in the newer 1972 Constitution. That right, the territorial legislature reasoned, was entirely consistent with restrictions on carrying concealed weapons, limits on brandishing weapons, regulations against discharging firearms in towns, prohibitions on selling guns to minors, and bans against weapons near polling places—all laws passed by the legislature during the 1870s and 1880s.
Montanans knew then that guns could both protect and provoke. They knew that many people, even a frontier sheriff with a reputation for gun-slinging, were much less skilled with firearms than they imagined themselves to be. The same weapon used for self-defense might also injure the innocent. They understood that a weapon in a public place might incite as well as prevent a fight and that reasonable restrictions, rather than limiting individual rights, could extend the boundaries of freedom for all.
Tim Lehman is professor of history at Rocky Mountain College. The views expressed here are entirely his own and do not reflect the official position of the college.