By Stevie Wang
In 1880 in Big Whiskey, a small town in Wyoming, the local sheriff enforces a firearms ban, obtaining ruthless autonomy for himself and his associates across town. Having no serious threats to their authority, the sheriff and his associates are free to manipulate the law to their own self interests. The film starts off with such a case; a prostitute gets disfigured by two cowboys. The sheriff however, lets them off by having the cowboys compensate the brothel owner with horses much to the objection of the rest of the prostitutes. The prostitutes then hire outlaws from out of town to extract vengeful justice but they later clash with the sheriff when they come to Big Whiskey armed with revolvers and rifles.
The concept of having the ability to bear firearms and therefore owning the ultimate legitimacy in the law and order of a small community rings throughout “Unforgiven.” In a small town in the rural Western frontier where population is scarce, authority belongs to those who posses the means to defend themselves. In the case of Big Whiskey, only a select few in town have firearms which means they have authority by force. This would not be the case if at least a clear majority of town were armed.
The implication is that the group with the firearms dictate how the law will be interpreted. Therefore, it is critical for as many people in the community to be armed as a means of ensuring that the law is democratically agreed upon and carried out. In the case of Big Whiskey, the law is not democratic—as only a small number of people have firearms thus giving them the sole ability to carry out the law.
The questions that “Unforgiven” gives us is about the extent to which the right to privately own firearms should be allowed, the degree of democratic rule that it may produce as a result of power being distributed to the masses and the legality of contract killing.