Tombstone Actor Fires Live Ammuntion During Gunfight Reenactment, Shoots Two

History got a little too real in Tombstone this week, when a man reenacting a gunfight fired live bullets, shooting a fellow actor in the thigh and spraying shrapnel into the crowd.

The actors, who perform with the Tombstone Vigilantes, a troupe that recreates Old West shootouts several times a month in the city's historic downtown, have their guns checked before each show to make sure they are loaded with blanks, Tombstone Marshal Bob Randall told New Times. But Tom Carter was late and missed the inspection.

When Carter faced off against Ken Curtis, assistant chief of the Tombstone Vigilantes, during the weekend skit, Curtis crumpled to the ground with an actual gunshot wound. An onlooker standing about 680 feet away took some shrapnel in the neck, and two nearby businesses, the Bird Cage Theater and the Shooting Range, were struck.

As soon as Curtis went down, producers stopped the show and “relieved” Carter of his weapon, Randall said.

Curtis was flown 70 miles to University Medical Center in Tucson, where he underwent surgery. He was doing well Monday and was expected to recover, Randall said. The other victim, Debbie Mitchell, sustained a “minor laceration” and refused medical attention.

One live round and five expended casings were found in Carter's gun, Randall said.

An aggravated-assault investigation is under way in the incident, Randall said. Carter has not been arrested.

"It was his gun," Randall maintained. "He was responsible for knowing that it was loaded."

It is illegal to fire a gun within Tombstone's city limits. But authorities have “looked the other way” when it comes to reenactments, Mayor Dusty Escapule told New Times. While the acting companies must file for permits to recreate shootouts, he said, the city has not regulated how it manages firearms.

Because of the shooting, the mayor set a plan into place to change all that.

Escapule instructed the Tombstone city attorney to draft an ordinance that would require actors to undergo background checks. Show companies would be required to keep a record of ammunition purchases and distributions so “every shot is accounted for,” he said.

“I'm taking this very serious,” he said. “One time is too many. I don't want to see it ever happen again.”

The mayor shut down the Tombstone Vigilantes and Tombstone Forward, another acting company that recreates historical gunfights on the city's streets until new regulations can be approved and implemented. They could be out of operation for up to two months, he said.

Two other acting troupes that perform skits indoors will be allowed to continue performing because, he said, “it's a more controlled environment.”

The skits are a major tourist draw for the city, one of the last American frontier boomtowns and best known for the 1881 gunfight at the O.K. Corral. During the famous fight, which has inspired books and motion pictures, outlaw cowboys Billy Claiborne, Tom and Frank McLaury, and Ike and Billy Clanton faced off with Town Marshal Virgil Earp, Assistant Town Marshal Morgan Earp, and deputy marshals Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday. Legend has it that 30 shots were fired in 30 seconds. 

Sunday's skit was part of Tombstone's annual anniversary celebration, Helldorado Days, so thousands of people were milling about when the shooting occurred. Approximately 450,000 people visit the city each year.

“We're lucky this guy didn't get killed,” Escapule said. “I have all kinds of nightmares about what could have happened.”

KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Elizabeth Stuart
Contact: Elizabeth Stuart