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Putting the Tucson Shootings in Context

Prof. Katherine Benton-Cohen

Katherine Benton-Cohen found the Pima (Ariz.) County sheriff's comments on Arizona being "the Tombstone of America" striking because of Tombstone's real history and 19th-century Wild West towns' numerous gun ordinances.

January 12, 2011 The recent incident in Tucson – in which a gunman shot Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.) and six other people died – shocked the nation. Associate professor in history Katherine Benton-Cohen, an Arizona native, talks about the incident and its historical context. She finds it ironic that people are making comparisons between current events in Arizona and the days of the Wild West, especially the notorious OK Corral shootout that happened in Tombstone, Ariz. She talks about how 1880s lawmakers did more to combat gun violence than today’s Arizona government, which she recently pointed out in an opinion piece for Politico. She talks here about why she thinks more restrictions should be placed on the sale of firearms in regard to dangerous mentally ill individuals and how she hopes that derisive political rhetoric will simmer down in the country.

When did you live in Arizona?

I’m a native. I was born and raised there. I lived there until I graduated from high school, and then I lived there for another year, almost two years, first after college and then when I was doing the research for my book on southern Arizona.

My mother grew up in El Paso, Texas, and my grandfather was born and raised on the Arizona and Texas borders with Mexico, so we’ve been around [in the area] a long time.

Can you talk a little about your book on the Arizona badlands?

It’s called Borderline Americans: Racial Division and Labor War in the Arizona Borderlands[Harvard University Press, 2009]. It’s about the history of race in southeastern Arizona and how in the 19th century Mexicans were considered legally white and how they began to be considered not white in the early 20th century. And in contrast, I look at] eastern and southern Europeans whose racial category was somewhat questionable when they came to work in copper mines there in the early 20th century. So I traced changing ideas about race on the Arizona border, and I look at it through the lens of ideas about family and neighborhood and work and land ownership.

How did you get interested in this subject?

I got interested in the subject because I centered the book around a town called Bisbee [Ariz.], which is a famous copper mining town and it’s about 25 miles from Tombstone, which of course is even more famous.

I was interested in writing a book that was equally Western history, as we think of it, right, very Western with mining and ranching, but also women’s history and the lives of women in the American West, and that seemed like a good place to do that.

How did Arizona lawmakers in the 19th century control gun violence and how does it compare to today’s laws in the state?

I used Tombstone as an example because the sheriff of Pima County invoked Tombstone in some of his comments that have been so well publicized over the weekend when he called Arizona "the Tombstone of America.”

I thought that comment was really striking for two reasons. One, it sort of reflected the way in which Tombstone, where the shootout at the OK Corral was, has become this kind of legendary thing that’s shrouded in myth that we think about as part of movies and dime novels. But it’s an actual place. And it was funny for an Arizona sheriff to say that, when it’s an actual place that’s actually in Arizona and has a real history.

The second reason that that comment was so striking to me is that real history actually demonstrates that Wild West towns in the 19th century almost all had gun ordinances, like outlawing the carrying of any deadly weapons within town limits, which Tombstone lawmakers did in 1880. So I wanted to correct the stereotype that I think both proponents and opponents of Arizona’s gun culture indulge in – that somehow Arizona has always been this place where everybody is always brandishing weapons and the governments and all the citizens are fine with that.

What are the chances that better gun laws will get passed in Arizona?

Not good.

But let me clarify what I might think of as good gun laws. The one thing that really gave me pause about writing this editorial [for Politico] was that I did not want to do something that would be offensive to Congresswoman Giffords herself, who I have had the privilege of meeting and for whom I have great respect. We have many mutual friends and allies. And she’s a very strong supporter of Second Amendment Rights.

I don’t always state my political views very baldly. But I am kind of a middle-of-the-road person on this, and I want reasonable restrictions on who buys guns. I’m not interested in banning every gun in America. I come from a family of hunters. They have legal firearms in the state of Arizona, and that’s fine with me. I’m looking for ways to keep dangerously mentally ill people and dangerous people from owning dangerous handguns and semi-automatic weapons.

Are other states in the same position of having inadequate or harmful gun laws?

Oh yeah. I was just at a conference with other historians, and Utah now has a law that allows students to carry guns on college campuses. And that is very chilling for faculty.

I used to teach at Louisiana State University – I taught there during Virginia Tech. I taught a big class, a 180-person lecture class. And that class met the day after the massacre at Virginia Tech, and we talked about that because LSU is a very similar place to Virginia Tech. And I talked about the fact that the classroom is supposed to be a place of safety, and nobody in there should have a gun.

In the current political climate, what can be done to stop this kind of violence?

One of the things that I think is really important is whether political rhetoric led to this, and my feeling is that this man was probably gravely mentally ill. And I think people across the political spectrum, decent people of all backgrounds, were horrified by this incident.

I think that we should all turn down the rhetoric, not because it incites people like this man (because we don’t know that) but because it makes us feel bad when something bad happens to somebody else.

That’s the thing that I really find striking. You say all these nasty things about a political opponent, and then something horrible happens to them and you feel bad because you are a human being.  So the message should be that you shouldn’t talk that way – because these are fellow human beings. That’s my two cents.

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