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Origins and Precedents
From the time humans fashioned reasonably sophisticated weapons, they have been fascinated by arms. They equated weapons with power. Those who governed arms-bearing communities attempted to control the dissemination of weapons, usually to keep the weapons out of the hands of those they regarded as enemies. Because men customarily kept the weapons, most societies identified them with virility. This male connection continued with changes in weaponry, as after European and Chinese craftsmen in the thirteenth century constructed crude projectiles, or cannons, fired with confined powder.
Around 1338 European artisans—Italian, Netherlander, and French—created combustible weapons light enough for an individual to carry. Europeans called them hand cannons or fire sticks. Although produced as weapons of war, these early firearms proved so cumbersome and dangerous to the shooter that few soldiers could use them. Improvements came slowly. With the development of the matchlock around 1424 European gunmakers fashioned a portable arm-length firearm as well as one designed for one hand that individuals could carry. These guns were awkward because the shooter had to ignite the gunpowder with an ember before he could fire. Even so, Spanish troops armed with the matchlock arquebus replaced the English bowmen as Europe's most powerful infantry.
Another significant change followed approximately in 1433 when Leonardo da Vinci invented the wheel lock, a metal mechanism attached to the gun that with the pull of a trigger supplied a spark forthe gunpowder. The early wheel locks were expensive, difficult to maintain, and dangerous to use. In time, though, as their quality improved, they gained recognition as killing tools comparable to, or more efficient than, swords, pikes, or bows with arrows.
Men who gained access to these guns usually transferred to them their fixation with arms. Among the few educated observers of weaponry in the fifteenth century whose views we have, a number described the new firearms as abominable. As the English historian Polydore Virgil put it in 1499, "of all other weapons that were devised to the destruction of man, the gones be most devilische." Old-fashioned soldiers also lamented the killing power of the primitive guns of their time. "Would to God that this unhappy weapon had never been devised," one French warrior, Blaise de Montluc, declared early in the sixteenth century, "and that so many brave and valiant men had never died by the hands of those ... who would not dare to look in the face of those whom they lay low with their wretched bullets. They are tools invented by the devil to make it easier to kill each other."
Distant contemporaries of this soldier, such as the rulers of Egypt's Mamluk military society, expressed similar sentiment toward existing firearms. "God curse the man who invented them," one chronicler wrote, "and God curse the man who fires on Muslims with them." To their detriment, the Mamluks refused to adopt firearms "because of the unchivalrous and immoral character of the weapon."
Elsewhere, as in France and England, feudal lords strove to control the dissemination of military arms of any kind among civilians because possession of a deadly weapon was presumed to be intent to inflict great bodily harm. We do not possess reliable statistics on how effective these efforts were, but, along with the high cost, they appear to have kept weaponry out of the hands of most of the lower classes. When small firearms acquired reasonable reliability, authorities attempted to impose similar restrictions on their use, seemingly with comparable success. Western rulers could not, however, prevent guns from traveling to distant lands. In the sixteenth century, in the hands of Spanish, Portuguese, French, and English explorers, firearms spread overseas.
During the conquest of the Americas, craftsmen in Europe invented or improved existing models of flintlock muskets, pistols, breech-loading guns, and revolvers. For years, though, these technical improvements found little practical use. The early rifles and carbines that loaded at the breech were more complicated than muzzle-loaders, and they were heavy, liable to burst and injure the shooter, and difficult to keep dry and clean. Most shooters relied on muzzle loading muskets. Despite the problems of firing and maintaining these firearms, various writers tell us that civilians gained access to some of them and that they became the weapons of choice for "highway and other brigands." For this and other reasons, authorities in societies that produced small arms tried to control their manufacture, or at least to restrict their ownership to the aristocracy.
Already, political thinkers such as Niccolò Machiavelli, writing between 1513 and 1521, deplored efforts to limit possession of arms to professional soldiers whom he regarded as "servants of tyranny." He preferred a "citizen army" made up of soldiers from their own country. "Weapons borne by citizens or subjects, given by laws and well regulated, never do damage," he contended. "On the contrary they are always an advantage" and the best defense against external danger and internal oppression.
Monarchs, though, disliked the idea of an armed citizenry even as protection for the state. In 1541 England's Henry VIII, for one, tried to check the enthusiasm of "divers gentlemen, yeomen, and serving men" for firearms, especially to use for criminal purposes. In a codified form of discriminatory gun control based on class, he limited the free use of firearms to noblemen and to commoners who had an annual income of at least one hundred pounds. Across the Channel on July 16, 1546, Francis I of France "prohibited all men, including the nobility, from carrying firearms under the severe penalty of immediate confiscation of said arms and death by strangulation." Seven years later, England's Edward VI commanded "all persons who shoot guns" to register their names with local Justices of the peace.
In 1561 in France, royal officials ordered all Parisians who owned firearms to turn them in to the city hall within twenty-four hours of receiving the notice. In August 1598, Henry IV decreed "the carrying of firearms punishable by death if the violator was not an aristocrat, prison and a fine if he was an aristocrat, and death if the nobleman was a recidivist." Rulers who followed Henry mandated other selective regulations that also carried a death penalty for those who bore firearms without government authorization.
In imposing these restrictions on their subjects, centralizing monarchs acted on the theory that all power in the state must rest with them. They feared that civilians with guns would challenge their authority and that of the state they embodied. Wherever possible, government exercised its power to disarm citizen groups that its leaders considered dangerous to the peace of the realm. Despite the legal constraints placed on the keeping of firearms in both England and France, some civilians managed illegally to possess them.
Europeans also evaded export controls on firearms. For example, in 1543 three Portuguese seafarers brought matchlock muskets to Japan, where these weapons entranced the warrior class. Soon, with Western help, Japanese craftsmen copied the guns, producing by 1556 more than three hundred thousand of them. Students of the problem testify that the quantity of muskets in Japan's armies came to exceed those in any contemporary European country.
Thirty-one years later, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, Japan's major political unifier, "took the first step toward the control of firearms." He disarmed soldier-monks and peasants and, as had European rulers, restricted the bearing of arms to the military aristocracy. He used firearms to defeat Korean and Chinese enemies. In 1598 a Japanese commander, Asano Yoshinaga, boasted, "I have killed a large number of [enemy] soldiers because I have used guns."
Even though firearms had become a feature of Japanese warfare, many aristocrats preferred their swords to the cumbersome matchlocks. Early in the next century, when dictatorial Tokugawa shoguns through force isolated Japan from much of the world, they also ended that country's first experimentation with guns. For the next two and a half centuries, Japan remained cut off from access to the major improvements in the destructive force of firearms.
Meanwhile, efforts in Europe to exercise some form of control over guns expanded in correlation with their availability. French and English princes often relied on militia equipped with firearms to maintain order and fight wars. In England, the obligation of free men, according to income, to serve the realm with their own arms went back to the Anglo-Saxon fyrd and to Henry II's Assize of Arms in 1181, a practice monarchs relied upon especially in emergencies.
With the rise of the nation-state and the increasing use of professional soldiers, monarchs sought to escape this dependency on part-time citizen-soldiers by replacing militias with standing armies loyal to the Crown. As much as monarchs on the continent, English kings desired armies bound to the sovereign, but they developed full-time soldiers, made use of improved firearms, and exerted control over guns, more slowly, for instance, than did French monarchs. By 1630 French gunsmiths had perfected the flintlock musket, but for years it remained too expensive for extensive use. It gained wide acceptance thirty years later when Louis XIV equipped his army with it. Soon, the English Crown and others adopted it in place of the wheel lock.
As a rule, England's monarch and Parliament expended more money on ships than on soldiers and small arms because they valued fleets over armies. Nonetheless, monarchs strove to reduce their reliance on militias because they dreaded having subjects who owned firearms that could be used in crime or against the government. Parliament, on the other hand, wished to retain the militias because it disliked standing armies with a virtual monopoly over the use of firearms, subject only to orders from the Crown. Unless faced with foreign war, Parliament refused to vote funds for a professional military force of substantial size.
At times, English monarchs tried to overcome this restraint on their exercise of power by revamping the militia. Instead of drawing on the population at large to conscript citizen-soldiers, they enrolled a select number of men, usually owners of property who could pay the costs of their arms and equipment. Out of self-interest, these propertied gun-owners usually sided with the Crown to maintain order. The government mustered them frequently and trained them carefully. Even so, when Charles I, in his quarrels with Parliament, tried with various tactics—including the use of select militiamen—to build his own army, he failed. He could not overcome widespread sentiment against a standing army.
In March 1642, over Charles's opposition, Parliament passed the Militia Ordinance, which allowed it to assume critical control over militias without royal consent. Three years later, to win the civil war that had followed, Oliver Cromwell, the pious Protestant general with his New Model Army, created England's first standing army. After Charles's execution in January 1649, the role of the army and control over gun keeping nevertheless remained contentious. With the title of Lord Protector, Cromwell ruled the succeeding Commonwealth virtually as a dictator through the power of his disciplined, professional troops. As students of the problem have noted, "Men of every political persuasion expressed fear and dislike of the New Model Army and the major-generals."
Cromwell viewed most Catholics as enemies of the state who should not have access to guns. In 1655, therefore, he ordered militia officers, acting as constables, to disarm "all Papists who declare against the present Government." Despite this use of force to protect the privileges of the more numerous Protestants, he could never make his army popular even with them. Among others, political philosopher James Harrington called Cromwell "a Usurper" and denounced his army. As an antidote, Harrington latched onto Machiavelli's idea of armed citizens as defenders of liberty and applied it to his utopian vision of a classical republic for England. From this time onward, much of the English citizenry opposed virtually any kind of compulsory military service with its requirement to bear arms.
After Cromwell's death, Charles II continued the practice of promoting selective ownership of firearms. In 1661, with the intent of preventing "any design of Traitorous and factious persons" from forming, he prohibited the importation of firearms or parts for them. In this way the Crown exercised control over the distribution of guns while its military constabulary kept malcontents under surveillance. Overall, the Crown diminished the capacity of the civilian population to take up arms. Its actions, along with the decline of the compulsory militia, contributed to a reduction in personal firearms among commoners who could afford them and in the number of men proficient in their use.
Parliament went along with the Crown's disarming campaign, passing in the next year a second militia act. It empowered militia officers at their discretion "to search for and seize all arms in the custody or possession of any person or persons" who authorities "shall judge dangerous to the peace of the kingdom." Private gun-keepers and other aroused citizens protested this renewed use of select militia as constables. "Although the country was infested by predatory bands," one gun owner grumbled, "a Protestant gentleman could scarcely obtain permission to keep a brace of pistols."
All along, medieval and Renaissance philosophers and other savants marveled at the destructive power of guns and gunpowder. Some praised the weapons as beneficial to humanity. For example, in 1665 a French virtuoso in arts and sciences commented on the place of the firearm in moral thought, military art, and progress in mechanical devices. He stated that "since the gun is without dispute the goodliest part of the Mechanicks, it follows that the gun and its Invention is the goodliest thing of the World." As we have noted, many thinkers disputed such judgment.
England's upper classes, however, valued guns so much that in 1670 their representatives in Parliament enacted another law restricting their ownership. For commoners who desired firearms, legislators raised the required annual income for ownership to 150 pounds, a hefty sum at that time. Meanwhile, the government framed more measures regulating the use of firearms, the most notable being the game act of the following year that Parliament passed unanimously.
The statute followed the long-established practice in England, France, and Italy of upholding the prerogative of the nobility and men of substance to hunt. This class legislation not only sought to keep commoners from destroying game, but also deprived them, whether Protestant or Catholic, of the privilege of owning firearms. It permitted gamekeepers to search their homes for guns and other prohibited weapons. Under this statute, the possession of a firearm indicated an intent to poach. The law provided the gentry with discretionary means to disarm and punish those they regarded as the wrong people and thereby with the power to maintain their kind of law and order. Critics contended that the game laws, in conjunction with other legislation, had as an important goal the disarming of a populace that by hook or crook had acquired firearms. Later, though, the summary seizure of guns became rare.
Confiscation of firearms in Catholic hands continued, especially in autumn 1678, when people panicked following allegations of a "popish plot" to murder the king and massacre Protestants. They turned violently on Catholics. Throughout the country, militiamen acting as vigilantes ransacked Catholic homes in search of firearms. In addition, to keep them out of reach of Catholics and other wrong people, the government rigorously enforced regulations on the production, trade, and ownership of small arms.
Seven years later, after antipapal sentiment to some extent had abated, James II, a Catholic, came to the throne. As had other kings, he disparaged the compulsory militia as inefficient, ill trained, expensive, and of questionable loyalty to the Crown. He neglected it while enlarging the army. He claimed, "there is nothing but a good force of well disciplined troops in constant pay that can defend us from such, as either at home or abroad, are disposed to disturb us."
This strategy alarmed the landed gentry, which regarded the king's armed force, composed predominantly of Protestants but with a large number of Catholic officers, as a standing army they detested. The gentry also feared be would use his troops to destroy the Protestant militias that as a rule they controlled. For this and other reasons, such as the Crown's granting freedom of worship to Catholics, seven eminent Protestant opponents secretly invited William of Orange, the stadtholder of the Netherlands and a staunch Protestant, to invade England. William accepted. In November 1688 when his army landed, both James's army and the militia deserted. In this Glorious Revolution, wherein soldiers used improved flintlock muskets, Parliament dethroned him.
In February of the next year Parliament obliged William, who had become king, and his queen, Mary, to accept a declaration of rights. In December 1689, with slight changes, Parliament gave the declaration statutory force and the king signed it into law as the Bill of Rights. In this final form, the bill forbade the Crown from "keeping a standing army within the kingdom in time of peace, unless it be with consent of parliament." It also granted Protestants the liberty of having firearms "for their defence suitable to their conditions and as allowed by law"—a first-time, nationwide, legal recognition of this privilege.
At least one analyst interpreted the bill as converting a "customary duty into a right" rather than a privilege. She claimed that this right of citizens to be armed on their own for self-defense, resistance, and preservation, as stated by jurist William Blackstone, became part of English common law. As such, government and immigrants brought this right to the colonies in North America. Later the colonists there passed it on to the American nation they formed.
Most other analysts maintain that by restricting the possession of arms to individuals who met qualifications based on class, who owned a stipulated amount of property, and who belonged to the proper religious faith, the Bill of Rights reinforced traditional selective gun control for the benefit of the right people. Shortly after the bill became law, Parliament voted to disarm Catholics, declaring they had no right to possess weapons. It thereby denied gun ownership by law selectively on a collective rather than an individual basis.
At the same time, Parliament, as well as the Crown, recognized the superiority of a trained, paid army over a self-armed but poorly disciplined citizenry. Still, the Protestant legislators continued to praise local militias and to provide for them because they were popular. Furthermore, the militias, whether compulsory or volunteer, proved serviceable to the new government, which feared the Catholics of occupied Ireland. It used the Protestant, English citizen-soldiers against the Irish.
Even more than Catholics in England, those in Ireland rallied around the deposed James II in his bid to regain the throne. On July 1, 1690, William defeated James's army at the battle of the Boyne but the Irish continued a bitter resistance. Five years later, therefore, Ireland's English-dominated Parliament passed an act "for the Better Security of the Government, by Disarming the Papists." It required Ireland's Catholics to surrender all "arms, armour, and munitions" under the threat of severe penalties. Other prohibitions followed.
In the next decade, most European rulers placed restrictions of more or less comparable severity on the wrong kind of people who might seek to possess guns. Monarchs disarmed or abandoned remaining militias and equipped their professional armies with up-to-date firearms. French kings, for instance, created a well-drilled army based on long-term enlistments. As technology improved the lethality and reliability of guns, authorities became more exacting in their efforts to prohibit the lower classes from obtaining them.
At times, governments even tried to disarm nobles, especially troublesome ones, but failed. Bourbon monarchs acted on the principle that would later become commonplace—the state could protect its subjects better than they could defend themselves. The monarchy controlled all parts of the arms industry and imposed regulations that spelled out who could or could not possess firearms.
Neither English theory nor government practice stretched as far as French practice, largely because of the people's continuing dread of standing armies. Englishmen of substance who expressed themselves openly argued, in the words of John Trenchard, that standing armies "are the instruments of Tyranny and their Country's ruin." Such misery, he added, could be avoided "by making the Militia to consist of the same Persons as have the property." This linking of liberty, property, and select militias would have a long life in both England and America.
The English monarchy functioned in line with these principles, especially after 1707 when it extended legislation regulating the possession of firearms. It placed ownership restraints not only on political and religious dissidents but also on the lower classes regardless of faith or politics. For instance, in 1752 aristocrats who loved hunting as sport formed the Society of Noblemen and Gentlemen for the Preservation of Game. It defined sporting privileges, which included shooting, and promoted a tough enforcement of laws designed to protect the pleasures of sportsmen.
In all, with laws directed against poachers and other wrong people, English gun restraints approximated those of France through much of the eighteenth century. Other European states also imposed regulations dictating who could or could not legally bear firearms. For these reasons and because firearms were scarce, costly, and had little value for ordinary people, most Europeans in the eighteenth century did not associate gun keeping with personal liberties or venerate it as part of their heritage.
Copyright © 2000 Howard Mumma. All rights reserved.
|1||Origins and Precedents||7|
|2||The Colonial Record||17|
|3||To the Second Amendment||27|
|4||Militias, Duels, and Gun Keeping||39|
|5||A Gun Culture Emerges||53|
|6||Reconstruction, Cheap Guns, and the Wild West||71|
|7||The National Rifle Association||89|
|8||Urban Control Movements||105|
|10||Direct Federal Controls||137|
|11||Guns Flourish, Opposition Rises||155|
|12||Control Act of 1968||171|
|13||Control Groups on the Rise||189|
|14||Gun Lobby Glory Years||203|
|15||A Wholly Owned NRA Subsidiary?||219|
|16||The Struggle Nationalized||235|
|17||The Brady Act||249|
|18||School Shootings and Gun Shows||265|
|19||Clinton v. the NRA||281|