Known for Gunslinging Theatrics, Town Grapples With Real Murders

“There’s a lot of ugly people in this town,” the man said, gun in hand, cigar in mouth, as he sauntered up the dusty street and stared down four lawmen.

Shots were fired in both directions in Tombstone.

“I’m serious, boy — hand them over,” an officer said, referring to the man’s guns.

“A funeral is cheaper than a trial,” the man retorted, to whoops from the crowd.

All emerged unscathed — for now.

The showdown was a re-enactment of a Wild West shootout, a mainstay of the Arizona town’s tourist attractions. But during Memorial Day weekend, the re-enactments go into overdrive as the town commemorates its most famous citizen, Wyatt Earp.

The annual festivities, called Wyatt Earp Days, attract tourists from around the world, including some who have made repeat visits to the town of 1,300 residents. Harold Simpson, 64, a retired postal worker from Boston, was making his 10th consecutive trip to Tombstone for the event.

“I always had a fascination with the Old West, but I didn’t know it was still around,” Mr. Simpson said. “I thought I was in a time warp.”

Despite Tombstone’s reputation for gunfights in the late 1800s, the town was actually one of the earliest to place restrictions on firearms, thanks to Mr. Earp, who was a deputy town marshal. In 1879 he created a gun control ordinance that required anyone carrying a firearm into town to check it at the sheriff’s office or the Grand Hotel.

The gun could not be picked up until the owner was leaving town, according to a local historian, Bob Boze Bell. That ordinance stayed in effect until 1910, when the state Constitution proclaimed, “The right of the individual citizen to bear arms in defense of himself or the state shall not be impaired.”

Arizona has some of the least restrictive gun laws in the country, and nearly all Tombstone citizens are armed, according to Brian Davis, the owner of BTD Scientific, a local gun shop.

When people want to purchase a gun at Mr. Davis’s shop, they must fill out an application, prove their state residency and age with a valid ID and agree that they are purchasing the weapon for only their personal use, he said. Then Mr. Davis calls the National Instant Criminal Background Check System to evaluate the individual’s history. If he receives confirmation over the phone, the shopper can walk out of the store with a weapon within several minutes.

Gun owners in Arizona do not need permits; they can keep their guns loaded and concealed. Guns are allowed in bars, but the possessor cannot be served alcohol.

In Tombstone, “basically everyone has a gun, and they know it,” Mr. Davis said.

For many years, Tombstone residents exercised great restraint in using their guns. From 2002 to 2011, there were no murders and four reported rapes in Tombstone, according to Arizona Department of Public Safety records.

But something seems to have changed: In the past three years, Tombstone has had two murders and a police-involved shooting death.

In 2012, a deputy responded to a 911 call about a home intruder. According to court records, the intruder, Cameron King, 15 at the time, had gained access to a gun that had been in a safe in the house. A young woman, who was hiding in the house, had seen Mr. King with the gun and called 911.

Deputy James Norris arrived at the house 40 minutes later. His search for Mr. King led him to a closet in the master bedroom. He pulled open the closet door and came face-to-face with Mr. King, who was holding the gun, according to the court records. Deputy Norris fired six times and then told Mr. King to “get down.” Mr. King said, “I’m down” and collapsed. He later died from his injuries. The shooting was investigated, and months later, the deputy was exonerated without trial.

The next year, a love triangle led to the town’s first murder in years. Melissa Moser, a married woman from Washington state, drove to Tombstone and had an affair with a local man, Antonio Molina, a prosecutor said at trial. When this became public knowledge, Jonathan Gibson, 28, the woman’s husband, went to Tombstone to try to reconcile with his wife.

Mr. Molina and Ms. Moser invited Mr. Gibson to dinner and killed him after a heated dispute, the Sierra Vista Herald reported. Mr. Molina and Ms. Moser were convicted of murder and are serving life in prison without parole.

The most recent murder occurred last year. Barry Chappell, 60, stalked his ex-girlfriend’s new beau, Leroy Colomy, 74, down 10th Street in Tombstone. Without warning, Mr. Chappell ran up behind Mr. Colomy and shot him five times in the back. He then drove over to the Bird Cage Theater, where he shouted, “I shot someone,” The Arizona Daily Star reported. Tombstone marshals arrested him, and he was later sentenced to life in prison without parole.

In a town that strives to preserve its Wild West reputation, it can be difficult to distinguish actors from those who live here. The same can be said for the guns that are fired throughout the day. Hearing 50 blank rounds shot in five minutes during re-enactments is typical in Tombstone, but if a person takes a loaded gun out of its holster, “someone will take it wrong,” Mr. Davis said.

All of that gunplay has some citizens wondering how Tombstone can balance public safety with a tourism industry that revolves around gunslinging.

Billy Hunley, 48, a fourth-generation owner of the Birdcage Theater in town, said the gun-wielding culture trickles into residents’ personal lives. “I try to get out of here as much as I can,” he said.

The town’s gunslinging history may take a toll on locals, but Mr. Davis said he thought video games were also to blame. “I think part of the problem today is desensitization,” he said. “They don’t deal with the ramifications of shooting someone.”