With Aaron Alexis’ killing of 12 people in Washington’s Navy Yard last Monday came, predictably, renewed calls for more gun control. Senator Dianne Feinstein of California said later that day that "Congress must stop shirking its responsibility and resume a thoughtful debate on gun violence in this country." Some gun rights advocates will protest this as a violation of our rights, arguing that we are, unlike most other (safer) nations, armed to the teeth to allow us to rise up and overthrow tyrannical governments. Or, perhaps more charitably, we have guns as a barrier against tyranny so that our rulers won’t try to take too much power.
As gun-rights enthusiast and National Rifle Association CEO Wayne LaPierre put it when testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee after the shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, when asked if he agreed that Americans needed “to protect themselves from the government,” “if you look at why our Founding Fathers ... they had lived under the tyranny of King George and they wanted to make sure that ... people in this new country would never ... have to live under tyranny.”
The go-to example of despotism is almost always the government of George III, who, upon facing rebellion from the American colonists, attempted to seize their weapons. In 1775 the Continental Congress adapted the Declaration of the Causes and Necessity of Taking Up Arms, which explained that part of the reason for the rebellion was that Massachusetts Governor Thomas Gage had ordered his soldiers to take colonists’ weapons. And thus we adopted the Second Amendment in 1791: "A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed." Never again, right?
Taking the long view is more complicated. The United States and Great Britain actually form a unique club of industrialized nations with a tradition of private gun ownership. Historically, British sovereigns didn’t like to keep their subjects weak and defenseless; they had the people very much armed. This was not, however, so that people could protect themselves against despotic monarchs; this was mostly so that the subjects could protect the head of state.
As David Vandercoy explained in a comprehensive history of American gun law he wrote for the Valparaiso University Law Review in 1994:
Blackstone credits King Alfred, who ruled England from 871 to 901 A.D., as establishing the principle that all subjects of his dominion were the realm's soldiers. ... An Englishman's obligation to serve in a citizen army is an old proposition. Coupled with this obligation to defend the realm was the obligation to provide oneself with weapons for this purpose.
King Henry II formalized his subjects' duties in 1181 by issuing the Assize of Arms. The arms required varied depending on the subjects' wealth, with the poorest freemen obligated to provide the least--an iron helmet and a lance. In 1253, the armed population was expanded beyond freemen to include serfs, individuals bound to the land and the land's owner. Serfs were required to procure a spear and dagger.
In the early days of the American republic we had a great fear of standing armies, because, in the words of James Madison, a state-entrenched military establishment “will not long be safe companions to liberty. Throughout all Europe, the armies kept up under the pretext of defending, have enslaved the people.” Armies used to defend against foreign invasions also have great power for the monarch to use against his own subjects.
We worried about the army propping up corrupt dictators. But early British monarchs had a very different worry. The were concerned that a standing army, like in ancient Rome and later in Latin America, would overthrow them. The English citizen army, writes David Hardy in an article in the Harvard Journal of Law & Public Policy, "was radically different from the Continental feudal system, which revolved around mounted and armoured men at arms and limited the right of armament, and the duty of fighting in defense, to a relatively small and wealthy class." With the “the Norman conquest of 1066 ... the new Norman rulers added some improvements intended to avoid the central flaw of the feudal system.”
That flaw had lain in the concept that the duty of military service was owed, not necessarily to the national sovereign or government, but immediately to the individual who had granted land to the person rendering service. Because the military duty ran with the land, determining who owed service and how many men he was obligated to provide soon became as complicated and easily disputed as a title question in the period before recording statutes. Further, it was possible that the same individual might owe military service to two individuals in conflict with each other, or that a major landholder would be able to call upon his subordinate tenants to fight with him against the king.
The problem with standing armies is not just that tyrants use them to oppress the people; if the army becomes too powerful, and too independent, it can also overthrow a country’s leader. This was something British sovereigns were anxious to avoid. Plus, if a state doesn’t have a standing army, the king doesn’t have to pay for it.
According to the Vandercoy article, by the 1500s an Englishman was legally required to own longbows for “sons between seven and fourteen years of age and teach them to shoot.” Every man over 14 had to own and know how to use the weapon as well. During the reign of Queen Elizabeth I (1558-1603) she appointed various knights to take charge of supervising her subjects’ military preparedness to ensure that all male subjects “from the age of sixteen years upward ... may be found able to bear armour or use weapons on horseback or on foot.” It was during this time that the government began to use the term “militia” to describe the armed citizens.
This was a very real duty. Subjects weren’t allowed to have arms. They were required to both have arms and be skilled in their use. Some historians have even argued that the existence of armed citizens in England moderated the monarch and improved subjects’ liberties because the subjects had war power if they revolted.
But over time British monarchs came to discover the difficult truth of the unofficial slogan of the National Rifle Association: Guns don’t kill people; people kill people. There’s no inherent philosophical problem with the idea of gun ownership, but guns become a problem at precisely the moment people you don’t like have them.
The big change in Great Britain came a few years after the death of Queen Elizabeth, when Charles I, Queen Elizabeth I’s distant cousin, frequently tried to assert his authority over Parliament. In 1628 Parliament rebuked him for violating the rights of his subjects (specifically because of the quartering of soldiers and imprisonment of individuals without trial). He admitted guilt, but then dissolved Parliament and ruled without it for a decade.
In the meantime, Charles I decided he needed his own army, and began forcing subjects to pay for that army. (In an attempt to preempt rebellion, he had a number of clergymen declare that raising arms against the king was a mortal sin.) And then Scotland revolted. In order to secure more funds to put down the rebellion, the king had to call Parliament back. But when he did so, Parliament seized control of the army. "Parliament called out the military [in 1642] and warned that military units mustered under authority other than that of Parliament would be punished," according to Vandercoy. "The king did the same, and civil war ensued."
The king lost and was executed in 1649. During the brief republic that followed Parliament was triumphant, but the new regime also disarmed Catholics, who opposed Parliament and had supported the king. When the royal family returned to power, Charles II, the executed king’s son, disbanded the country’s army and a new, rather more sympathetic Parliament passed the Militia Act of 1661, which gave control over the militia to the king. With the Game Act of 1671 possession of guns became illegal for those who weren’t permitted to hunt.
When Charles II died, his brother, James II, who was a Catholic, succeeded him. The new king continued to support disarmament but was now mostly focused on keeping weapons away from the Protestants. And then he started to appoint Catholics to military positions, and asked Parliament to put an end to the militia system altogether and approve a standing army. Parliament refused. And then his daughter and his son-in-law deposed him.
Protestants wanted to keeps guns out of the hands of Catholics because Catholics were likely to support the tyrannical king. Kings wanted to keep guns away from Protestants because Protestants were likely to support Parliament. Protestants were on the side of limiting the king’s power, and Catholics were on the side of supporting it, but the guns themselves were merely instruments in the hands of a faction. While the English are in many ways our ancestors in terms of the rights of citizens, their government paid no lip service to the idea of firepower as a right. Guns were just guns. And you kept them away from your opponents because they might use them.
Today England has very strict gun laws. After rebellion in 1715, British Parliament enacted the Disarming Acts of 1716 and 1725, which greatly reduced gun possession. In 1824 Parliament passed the Vagrancy Act in reaction to the problem of ex-soldiers from the Napoleonic wars roaming around the country with guns. The law allowed the police to arrest "any person with any gun, pistol, hanger [dagger], cutlass, bludgeon or other offensive weapon ... with intent to commit a felonious act." Other acts throughout the 19th century curtailed gun possession even further. Since then, largely in reaction to shootings, ownership of firearms in the United Kingdom has grown more and more restrictive.
Even police officers in the United Kingdom generally don’t carry firearms. Britain has seen one mass shooting since 1997. According to an article earlier this year in the Boston Globe, “law enforcement officials say ballistic tests indicate that most gun crime in Britain can be traced back to less than 1,000 illegal weapons still in circulation.”
The United Kingdom has long since given up its worry about a standing army. Indeed, so have we. The United States now maintains one happily.