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Gun Laws in Early America: The Regulation of Firearms Ownership, 1607–1794

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  28 October 2011


King James I stated the official position of the English governing elite on gun ownership succinctly. When it was suggested that more of England's subjects should enjoy the right to hunt and own firearms, James responded that “it is not fit that clowns should have these sports.”

Discussion of early American gun laws begins with consideration of the English legal heritage. In the last few years, adherents of the self-described “standard model” of the meaning of the Second Amendment have constructed a paradigm of an uninterrupted tradition of legally sanctioned individual gun ownership in America. Such a construction starts with the idea that the British brought an acceptance of the universal ownership of firearms with them to the Americas. That cultural norm gave form to the meaning of the Second Amendment, which institutionalized an individual right to bear arms for purposes of personal and communal defense and as a security against a tyrannical government. This history matters greatly to these scholars in establishing an original intent in the Second Amendment to protect an individual's right to own guns.

Notes and Commentary
Copyright © the American Society for Legal History, Inc. 1998

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1. Quoted in Manning, Roger B., Hunters and Poachers: A Cultural and Social History of Unlawful Hunting in England, 1485-1640 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993), 65CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

2. Some scholars see “universal gun ownership,” others “near universal” levels of gun ownership. On the first, see, for instance, Hardy, David T., Origins and Development of the Second Amendment (Southport, Conn.: Blacksmith Corp., 1986), 4245Google Scholar; Halbrook, Stephen P., That Every Man be Armed: The Evolution of a Constitutional Right (Albuquerque: New Mexico University Press, 1984), 5565Google Scholar; Williams, David G., “Civic Republicanism and the Citizen Militia: The Terrifying Second Amendment,” Yale Law Journal 101 (1991): 553, 577-79CrossRefGoogle Scholar. On the latter formulation, see, for example, Malcolm, Joyce Lee, To Keep and Bear Arms: The Origins of an Anglo-American Right (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1994), 2025, 138-40Google Scholar; Shalhope, Robert E., “The Armed Citizen in the Early Republic,” Law and Contemporary Problems 49 (1986): 125–41CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

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4. Randy E. Barnett, “The New Consensus on the Second Amendment,” talk at Emory Law School, 16 October 1997.

5. Barnett, Randy E. and Kates, Don B., “Under Fire: The New Consensus on the Second Amendment,” Emory Law Journal 45 (1996): 11391259Google Scholar; quotations at 1141-42. This is an extended demolition job on a single article, the equally intemperate “Gun Crazy” (see below, note 7).

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37. E.g., 1639 and 1643, a twenty-shilling fine per town, Ibid., 1:30, 91; 1741, 8:386.

38. Ibid., 1:74, 134, 542-43; 2:390; 3:430; 8:380; 9:341-14, 473, 580.

39. Ibid., 1:282, 350; 2:19-20, 181, 347.

40. Ibid., 2:217; 3:431; 4:177, 485; 1723, 6:363, 406; 9:111; 1756, 10: 479.

41. Ibid., 6:436; 8:382-83; 10:461, 559, 612.

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