Arming the city: Firearms, crime, and society in San Francisco, 1848--1906

Date of Completion

January 1999


History, United States|Sociology, Criminology and Penology




The compatibility of firearms and an urban society is a contentious issue in modern America. By some estimates 200 million guns are in private hands throughout the country. Criminologists, sociologists, and other scholars, however, are by no means certain as to the effect of so many firearms on America's admittedly high violent crime rates. Thus the question remains: Can an urban society tolerate large numbers of guns spread among its members? This dissertation examines the Impact of firearms on violent crime rates in San Francisco between 1848 and 1906, and argues that guns themselves had little if any influence on crime. Socio-psychologically and rhetorically, guns fed a variety of fears that often manifested themselves in public and private violence, but the degree of access to them proved inconsequential In terms of actual violence. The dissertation contains chapters on topics ranging from crime during the gold rush to the relationship between guns, murder, and suicide. Both the 1851 and 1856 vigilante committees are treated in detail, as is the post-Civil War crime wave that swept the nation after 1865 but somehow missed San Francisco. Chapters on antebellum sectionalism and Gilded Age labor unrest look at the role of firearms in the context of national politics and social violence. ^ From the gold rush to the great earthquake, San Francisco grew rapidly from a sleepy hamlet to the metropolis of the West. The city's population grew almost exponentially as it came to dominate the commerce and culture of the entire area between the Rockies and the Pacific Ocean. At the same time, San Francisco emerged as a major center of firearms production and distribution. The large number of gun dealers and absence of controls on sale and possession meant that San Franciscans experienced perhaps the easiest access to guns anywhere in the country. Yet, for all this, violent crime rates remained low. With the sole exception of murder, which comprised a tiny fraction of all violent offenses, large numbers of guns in private hands did not make San Francisco a more dangerous city. ^