Colonial Firearms Regulation: An Honest Account

Colonial Firearm Regulation
Author: Clayton E. Cramer
Recently published scholarship concerning the regulation of firearms in Colonial America claims that because Colonial governments distrusted the free population with guns, the laws required guns to be stored centrally, and were not generally allowed
in private hands. According to this view, even those guns allowed in private hands were always considered the property of the government. This Article examines the laws of the American colonies and demonstrates that at least for the free population, gun
control laws were neither laissez-faire nor restrictive. If Colonial governments evinced any distrust of the free population concerning guns, it was a fear that not enough freemen would own and carry guns. Thus, the governments imposed mandatory gun ownership and carriage laws.
Clayton E. Cramer is an independent scholar who took the leading role in exposing the Michael Bellesiles hoax. His website
In much the same way that an understanding of the limits of free speech in Colonial America may provide insights into the intent of Congress and the states when they adopted the First Amendment, so an understanding of colonial firearms regulation has the potential to illuminate our understanding of the limits of the right protected by the Second Amendment. What types of firearms laws were common, and might therefore have been considered within the legitimate scope of governmental regulation? In the last several years, widely publicized scholarship by Michael Bellesiles has asserted that the English colonies strictly regulated the individual possession and use of firearms. While acknowledging that the English government ordered the colonists to own firearms for the public defense as a cost-cutting measure, he asserts:
At the same time, legislators feared that gun-toting freemen might, under special circumstances, pose a threat to the very polity that they were supposed to defend. Colonial legislatures therefore strictly regulated the storage of firearms, with weapons kept in some central place, to be produced only in emergencies or on muster day, or loaned to individuals living in outlying areas. They were to remain the property of the government. The Duke of York’s first laws for New York required that each town have a storehouse for arms and ammunition. Such legislation was on the books of colonies from New Hampshire to South Carolina.
i. This assertion that the Colonial governments distrusted their free people with firearms, and closely controlled their possession in governmental hands has began to appear in court decisions concerning the meaning of the right to keep and bear arms provisions contained in the U.S. Constitution and 46 of the state constitutions.
ii. Then as now, laws were not always obeyed, and were sometimes indifferently or unequally enforced. The evidence from contemporary accounts, from probate records, or even from archaeological digs (which could suggest something about gun ownership levels by recovered artifacts), might provide us with evidence for evaluating how often those laws were followed. Under the best of conditions, however, analysis of this type is
complex, and differing interpretative models may come to differing conclusions as to whether those laws were generally obeyed, generally ignored, or perhaps were somewhere in between. By comparison, evaluating the claim that Colonial governments passed laws that restricted firearms ownership and use (regardless of how those laws were actually enforced) is fairly easy. An examination of the Colonial statutes reveals that, contrary to Bellesiles‟s claim of distrusted and disarmed freemen, almost all colonies required white adult men to possess firearms and ammunition. Some of these statutes were explicit that militiamen were to keep their guns at home; others imply the requirement, by specifying fines for failing to bring guns to musters or church. Colonies that did not explicitly require firearms ownership passed laws requiring the carrying of guns under circumstances that implied nearly universal ownership. None of the Colonial militia statutes even suggest a requirement for central storage of all guns. None of the Colonial laws in any way limited the possession of firearms by the white non-Catholic population; quite the opposite. Most colonies did, however, pass laws restricting possession of firearms by blacks and Indians. In a few cases, in a few colonies, whites suspected of disloyalty (including Catholics) were also disarmed. As the statutes demonstrate, colonial governments did not hold that firearms in private hands, “were to remain the property of the government.”

iii. Indeed, the evidence is largely in the other direction that colonial governments were often reluctant to seize weapons for public use. When driven by necessity to do so, they
compensated owners of those guns. Colonial regulations that limited the use of firearms were usually for reasons of public safety. These regulations were similar in nature, though generally less restrictive in details, than similar laws today.
The laws regulating firearms ownership adopted by the American colonies bear a strong resemblance to each other. This is not surprising, since by 1740, every colony bore allegiance to the English crown, and the laws reflected the shared heritage. The similarity in laws is especially noticeable with respect to the English duty of nearly all adult men to serve in the militia, and to bear arms in defense of the realm.
A. Connecticut. Among the Colonial militia statutes, Connecticut’s 1650 code contains one of the clearest expressions of the duty to own a gun: “That all persons that are above the age of sixteene yeares, except magistrates and church officers, shall beare arms…; and every male person with this jurisdiction, above the said age, shall have
in continuall readines, a good muskitt or other gunn, fitt for service, and allowed by the clark of the band….”
iv. A less elaborate form of the law appeared in 1636, with reiterations in 1637, 1665, 1673, 1696, and 1741.
v. Fines varied between two and ten shillings for lacking firearms or for failure to appear with firearms “compleat and well fixt upon the days of training….”
B. Virgina. Virginia provides another example of a militia statute obligating all free men to own a gun. A 1684 statute required free Virginians to “provide and furnish themselves with a sword, musquet and other furniture fitt for a soldier… two pounds of powder, and eight pounds of shott….”
vii. A similar 1705 statute required every foot soldier to arm himself “with a firelock, muskett, or fusee well fixed” and gave him eighteen months to comply with the law before he would subject to fine.
viii. There are minor modifications to the statute in 1738 that still required all members of the militia to appear at musters with the same list of gun choices, but reduced the
ammunition requirement to one pound of powder and four pounds of lead balls.
ix. A 1748 revision is also clear that militiamen were obligated to provide themselves with “arms and ammunition.”
x. The 1748 statute, however, did acknowledge that all freemen might not be wealthy enough to arm themselves, and provided for issuance of arms “out of his majesty‟s magazine.”
xi. By 1755, all cavalry officers were obligated to provide themselves with “holster
s and pistols well fixed….”
xii. C. New York. Another typical colonial militia statute is the Duke of York‟s law for New York (adopted shortly after the colony‟s transfer from the Dutch), that provided, “Besides the Generall stock of each Town[,] Every Male within this government from Sixteen to Sixty years of age, or not freed by public Allowance, shall[,] if freeholders[,] at their own, if sons or Servants[,] at their Parents and Masters Charge and Cost, be furnished from time to time and so Continue well furnished with Arms and other Suitable Provition hereafter mentioned: under the penalty of five Shillings for the least default therein[:] Namely a good Serviceable Gun, allowed Sufficient by his Military Officer to be kept in Constant fitness for present Service” along with all the other equipment required in the field.

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