If you think there is no incident in Utah history that would outrage both the modern-day National Rifle Association and American Civil Liberties Union, think again. On July 3, 1917, the front page of The Salt Lake Tribune proclaimed "Guns of Aliens Seized" and "Scores of Weapons of All Varieties Are Taken from Places in City's Suburbs." As The Tribune noted: "American citizenship took on a new significance in Salt Lake County yesterday." This story of life in Utah shortly after the United States declared war on Germany reveals that war fever can lead to the betrayal of fundamental American ideals in the name of patriotism.
Starting at 9:00 a.m. on July 2, Sheriff John S. Corless led 135 deputies (including more than 100 "special deputies") in a daylong constitutional assault on foreigners living in Bingham, Lark, Copperton, Garfield, Magna, Arthur, Midvale and Murray. The raid was a complete surprise. Under a new state law denying "aliens" the right to possess any sort of firearm, the posse confiscated "a weird assortment" of roughly 500 shotguns, rifles, pistols "and just plain 'shooting irons' that defy classification." This arsenal included weapons from ancient, medieval and modern times.
As their homes were ransacked, the immigrant community did not commit a single act of violence in response. No offense, of course, was cited to the residents. "A good American name from a neat housewife, who looked the inquiring deputy straight in the eyes and told where her husband was born," was enough for the posse to call off the dogs.
The "Home Guard" was made up of important business and professional men, including clothiers, family doctors, lawyers and ministers. "The service," it was reported, "was one of patriotism." They searched hundreds Salt Lake County homes and seized guns "where no suspicion had been entertained that they were concealed." The deputies witnessed not a few touching incidents during their resolute defense of liberty. In Bingham Canyon, a Serbian woman tied her life savings of $385 in a handkerchief and tossed it into the bushes when she saw the deputies coming. After Sheriff Corless explained what he was up to, the woman went to retrieve "her horde of wealth." It was gone.
The posse stopped two shifty-looking men hurrying away from the scene who confessed they had grabbed the money. The evildoers were forced to return the money to its rightful owner. The state fish and game department took a "keen interest" in Corless' confiscation and concluded it would take a big bite out of poaching by foreigners. Any immigrant who tried to feed his family with an illegal firearm would be jailed. Fortunately, disarming Salt Lake County immigrants undoubtedly preserved game for today's renegade hunting guides, who are now our state's most notorious poachers.
Authorities believed they had not confiscated "anywhere near all" of the immigrant weaponry during the "wholesale search and seizure proceedings." Sheriff Corless vowed to continue the crusade with his regular deputies. The raids on immigrants accomplished nothing beyond harassing the most poor and powerless members of the community. These law-abiding people could not have overthrown Salt Lake County, let alone the U.S.A., with their weird assortment of weapons.
On this Veterans Day, America will remember those who gave their lives for their country. We should never forget that they died defending our rights and freedoms. When zealotry and xenophobia trample those rights, they betray the true patriots who made the ultimate sacrifice.
If he can figure out how to load it, the authorities will never pry historian Will Bagley's 1876 trapdoor Whitney-Springfield rifle from his cold dead fingers.