The town is noticeably quieter, the streets more empty.
Allen Street hasn’t felt the same since the shooting in the Helldorado festival.
“Tombstone just hasn’t felt like Tombstone without gun skits in the streets,” said Councilman Armando Villa.
In a gun reenactment skit held by the Tombstone Vigilantes, a nonprofit that holds outdoor gun skits to honor the town’s rich history, live rounds were used instead of blank bullets.
Actor Tom Carter of the Vigilantes did not have his gun checked in at the staging area when he arrived late on set. Carter figured he had blank rounds in his .45-caliber pistol. It’s the same gun he uses for self-defense and he had not used the gun in over a month.
During the skit, Carter fired five rounds. One struck Ken Curtis, another Vigilante, who was flown to University Medical Center. Tourist Debbie Mitchell walked away with a laceration on her neck from a ricocheted bullet.
Mayor Dusty Escapule stopped the show and ordered the Vigilantes to cease any further gun skits until all weapons were safely loaded with blank bullets, according to a press release from city marshal Bob Randall.
It’s been a week since then, yet more questions remain than answers. How could the town have let this happen?
Gunfight reenactments are a big part of Tombstone. In fact, there’s nearly a handful of local businesses that produce their own gun shows. Their popularity has raised the question: What is the city doing to ensure public safety?
Businesses like the O.K. Corral and Old Tombstone Western Town adhere to strict safety protocols. But, it’s a policy that’s not required by the city. These businesses took the initiative to regulate themselves.
At the O.K Corral, actors are forced to undergo extensive training before they join the cast. Every gun is inspected by the armorer, and all of the guns are locked inside a safe until it’s show time, according to owner Bob Love.
“We use an armorer, but the use of an armorer, widespread among the professional groups that perform in Tombstone on a daily basis, is not a requirement mandated by the City of Tombstone,” said O.K. Corral gunfight director Tim Fattig.
Like other gunfight reenactments in town, the Vigilantes regulate themselves. There are no requirements from the city that says every gun must be checked before a show.
“The city just signs off on a permit and that’s it,” said Randy Davis, owner of Big Iron Shooting Gallery and a former Vigilante member.
In a town hall meeting after the shooting, the city discussed potential ways to address the safety concerns of unregulated gun shows, while still keeping the outlaw spirit that gun shows bring to the public.
The most likely scenario for the city seems to be to hire a public official to inspect all guns before each public showing.
A public inspector would be the cheapest and most effective way to prevent future accidents, said Villa.
“We have spoken long and hard on this matter and we agree that hiring someone outside the city to ensure that all guns are handled safely is the best option,” Villa said. “We want to make sure something like this does not happen again, but we don’t want to hinder our gun shows by using less than authentic weapons. I think an inspector would help this.”
Currently, the city does not have an ordinance regulating gun shows or limiting what guns can be used.
“I don’t want anyone to think we are not taking this matter seriously,” Villa said. “The safety of Tombstone residents and the tourists who come here are a top priority and we will draft an ordinance that shows that.”
Blank Firing Guns
Another area of contention is the use of guns that fire live rounds.
“Why wouldn’t you use a gun that only fires blanks?” asked Henry Simpson, a Huachuca City resident who often visits Tombstone.
Blank pistols are precisely what movie directors use for filming. A 9 mm blank pistol does not guarantee safety, but it does make sets safer.
But, the solution is not as easy as switching to blank pistols.
The Vigilantes use real guns because it’s more authentic and historically accurate, said Davis.
“The justification is that they look more real, and they sound more real,” said Davis.
But, Davis says the authentic argument is not a good one. This is because “there are replicas for real guns everywhere. You can absolutely make a gun that looks like the real one.”
Fatti, says the O.K Corral actors use real guns for multiple reasons. First, blank pistols are too expensive for day-to-day use. A real firearm runs at about $550 to $600. A blank gun costs around $200 to $250. But, blank guns are more prone to breaking.
“Blank guns aren’t made of good material and they don’t require the pressure of a real gun,” said Davis. “They’re only intended to be used for a short amount of time. A real gun will last you forever.”
Second, it’s harder to find blanks. This is because a real firearm can fire off copper blank bullets that can easily be made by the armorer. These bullets cost about six cents each.
Meanwhile, a 9 mm blank pistol needs .380 rimmed theater blanks. These bullets costs 67 cents each. At the O.K. Corral, gunfighters host three shows a day and expend an upwards of 120 to 140 bullets per day, said Fattig. That’s about $94 a day in just blanks.
Early this week, Marshal Randall concluded his investigation. It’s yet to be known whether charges will be pressed. Details of the marshal’s report will most likely be known by next week after the case has been reviewed by the county general. The Tombstone Vigilantes, Curtis, and Carter have declined comment.
Today, the city has suspended all gun shows on public streets until a new ordinance is passed. But gun shows on private properties such as the O.K. Corral will continue.
Kethia Kong, Max Lancaster, and Brandon Bracamonte are reporters for Arizona Sonora News, a service from the School of Journalism with the University of Arizona. Contact Kethia at email@example.com, Max at firstname.lastname@example.org , and Brandon at email@example.com.
Tombstone is one of a handful of towns that frequently perform street gun shows. Here is a look at how other performing companies ensures the safety of workers and patrons.
- Old Tucson Studios
Employees are not allowed to bring own firearms
Background checks required
Point weapon 6-10 feet upstage of actor. Gun never pointed at bleachers.
During street shows, security personnel moves audience members in crescent or semi-circle shapes avoid being in line sight of gun
“No accidents involving firearms over past ten years,” said Scott Madsen, Human Resources and Operations Manager
- Trail Dust Town
The Pinnacle Peak Pistoleros, Tucson, AZ
Employees are not allowed to bring own firearms
Background and federal background checks required
Manufacture their own blank bullets
Actors aim firearms 15 degrees off the actor
“In the 19 years at Trail Dust Town there has never been an incident even close to the one in Tombstone.,” said Jerry Woods, Artistic Director of the gun show
- Boot Hill Museum Inc.
Dodge City, KS
Employees are allowed to bring own firearms after inspections completed by two safety council members
No background checks required
Blank bullets bought from a third party company
Audience is never behind or in front of the gun show
“No accident has happened to an audience member in the last 15 years,” said director Lara Brehm. “We’ve had no accident with a firearm involved.”