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Giving Weapons to Citizens Has Often Been in the Name of Defending Tyranny, Not Fighting It

British sovereigns didn’t like to keep their subjects weak and defenseless; they had the people very much armed.
 
 
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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.”

 
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