Fort Worth's famous staged shootouts under scrutiny

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by JONATHAN BETZ

WFAA

Posted on December 19, 2012 at 6:52 PM

Updated Thursday, Dec 20 at 6:12 PM

FORT WORTH – Twice a day on some weekends, actors dressed up as cowboys square off. With their boots click-clacking on the brick-laid streets of the Fort Worth Stockyards, they draw their pistols and open fire at each other. 

Shots ring out through the streets. The men clutch their chests and pretend to fall to their death as tourists cheer.   

For decades, the attraction has been considered harmless fun that symbolizes a city that proudly declares itself as “Where the West Begins.”  Yet, after the tragedy in Connecticut, that symbol of its wild roots is now under scrutiny.

“To me, it’s a little insensitive, in light of the Aurora and the Connecticut shootings,” said Dennis Merrell, referencing two mass shootings in recent months. “That family is not going to celebrate and, God forbid, if one of them was down here and saw this gun fight … It’s not really anything to make a show out of.” 

Merrell, 59, isn’t a likely critic. He fits the city’s western image, often wearing boots and a cowboy hat. He spent his life ranching and owns guns, but says he worries about the message the mock shootouts send.

“I think we can teach some history and heritage and not use guns,” he said. “Guns were here, yes;  but I don’t think we have to have simulated shootings twice a day on weekends to make everybody believe we’re cowboys,” he said.  

Stockyards Station, a shopping area within the historic Stockyards, has been staging the shows for nearly 20 years.   The company’s marketing director, Sarah McClellan-Brandt, says directors have no plan to change it or cancel the performance. She bristles at any comparison to the school shooting.

“It’s just one is not related to the other,” she said. “We’re not even going to discuss it.”

The gunfight is staged throughout the year, usually on holiday weekends and during the summer. The next performances are set for the weekend between Christmas and New Year’s Eve. 

The re-enactment is held twice a day after the famous cattle drive through the streets of the historic district. The skit is part history lesson, part comedy sketch.

Actors playing a sheriff and outlaws crack jokes between gunshots. The men fire blank rounds but use real guns, often displaying the firearm to a chorus of oohs and aahs.

The performance climaxes with a sheriff and his deputy opening fire in the street and killing two outlaws, while hundreds of tourists encircling the action cheer and snap photos.

“The public likes it,” said Genna Wilson, who works in the district posing with a cow for visitors. “This is all just for show. I don’t think the kids who come down to watch this are thinking, ‘oh, I’m going to go get a gun.’”

Yet after a gunman killed 26 people in a Connecticut school, Hillary Campbell Johnson, visiting from Florida, admits the idea of a shootout makes her slightly uncomfortable. 

“I would say maybe lay off for a little while,” Johnson said.  She grew up near the town of last week’s shooting.

“There’d be some sensitivity to that right now,” she said, “just because people are so shaken by the gun violence.”

The shows have proved popular over the years, including with the city’s mayor who supports the re-enactment. If anything, she says, it provides an opportunity for parents to discuss history with their children.

“Not to make light of the shootings, ever,” Mayor Betsy Price said, “but it is a choice people make to see, and it is a part of our western heritage.” 

And the controversy itself irks regulars, who feel political correctness has gone overboard.

“I think it’s probably not much more than watching a western on television,” said Peggy Dulaney, a tour guide, who adds the district relies on the shootouts to draw hundreds of visitors.  “People, when they come to Texas, they expect to see cowboys and when you see cowboys you see guns, that was just part of what it was.” 

It’s an argument that falls flat with Merrell. 

“We could do a mock hanging here, I guess,” he said. “We could shoot some Indians around here. That’s history. That’s just as insensitive as what they’re doing here.”

Email jbetz@wfaa.com

Note: portions of the video in this story were created by YouTube user "ayyoovod"

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