​Guns: A family affair

Guns as a way of life in Wyoming 07:39

To some city-dwellers, guns are a potential threat to life. But those who live in our wide-open spaces tend to see guns as a way of life. For that story, we turn to the newest member of our "Sunday Morning" family -- Senior Contributor Ted Koppel:

If you've ever wondered where the deer and the antelope actually roam, it's here -- alongside moose and elk, bears and bobcats, coyotes and wolves -- at Mooncrest Ranch, a few miles outside Cody, Wyoming.

"It's still the Storybook West to so many people," said the ranch's owner, Bob Model, who looks like he's been riding all his life, and bears a striking resemblance to Teddy Roosevelt.

A ranchhand prepared. CBS News

When Model's ranch hands head up into the mountains, they'll be carrying rifles, for protection against wolves and coyotes, or to put down a cow that's eaten a noxious weed or a horse that's broken a leg. Even down here, a couple of the men carry handguns. "Well, you never know when you might need it," one ranchhand said.

It's an enormous piece of land. Model owns 5,000 acres, and then there's another 195,000 acres of public land surrounding his ranch.

"So, you're sitting on roughly 200,000 acres of my land?" said Koppel. "You're welcome."

"And I appreciate that," Model laughed. "But I would say to you, I'm a good steward. I use it for grazing my livestock. And I am also a licensed big game outfitter. And you're lucky to have me, you know, watching out for your land."

"When people who don't hunt look around a place like this and you see all the heads up on the wall, they say, 'What the hell is that guy talking about? Conservation? They're killing them,'" said Koppel.

"The hunters have played an important role in conserving not only wildlife, but our resources upon which the wildlife live."

There's no getting around it: Guns are big in Wyoming, with more guns per capita than any state in the country. As for the residents of Park County (where Cody is located), Sheriff Scott Steward says people who aren't gun owners are very much in the minority.

"If they have guns in the home, the low end's going to be probably four to five," Sheriff Steward said. "High end's going to be anywhere from 100 to more."

Still, when it comes to the rate of gun-related murders, Wyoming is below the national average. Sheriff Steward will tell you he's all right with all those guns out there; he has only a handful of deputies.

"We might have three on duty in the county to cover 6,000 square miles," he said. "Sometimes you can have a deputy on one side of the county and get a call 40 miles away; chances are he's not gonna get there to intervene in any kind of conflict that may be going on."

"So what you're telling me is, people need to be able to take care of themselves?" asked Koppel.


Guns are woven into the tapestry of all the old Wyoming families -- that of retired Senator Alan Simpson, for example. His great-grandfather, John Porter Simpson, came to Jackson in 1884. "My grandmother lived to be a hundred," Simpson said. "She was born in Salt Lake in 1874, two years before the Custer battle. She always carried a derringer in her purse."

"I assume that back then folks needed their guns?" Koppel asked.

"Without guns, there'd be no West."

Former U.S. Senator Alan Simpson with Ted Koppel. CBS News

There is, Simpson concedes, a strain of violence in his family: "My grandfather murdered a guy in the main street of Cody in August of 1923," he said. "My grandfather was a lawyer, so he'd represented this guy. The guy didn't like the result, came up behind my grandfather, hit him in the back of the head."

Simpson's grandfather got a gun and shot his client -- killed him. A local jury voted for acquittal.