Academic journal article Texas Law Review


Academic journal article Texas Law Review


Article excerpt


ARMING AMERICA: THE ORIGINS OF A NATIONAL GUN CULTURE. By Michael A. Bellesiles. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2000. $30.00.

I. Bellesiles's Challenge to Conventional Wisdom

It is as if Michael A. Bellesiles has overturned a table on which rested everything we thought we knew about guns in early America. The images of the rifle hanging over every American mantle; of settlers depending upon their guns to hunt and feed themselves and protect their communities against Indian attack; of Americans becoming skilled sharpshooters on farms and in the backwoods; of the colonial militia rushing from their homes with muskets in hand to face the Redcoats; of the American founders believing in an individual right to keep and bear arms; of a "wild west" inhabited by gun-toting cowboys-all of this, and more, turns out to be myth.

Bellesiles, a history professor at Emory University, is not merely upsetting the conventional wisdom of the lay public, however.1 What makes Bellesiles's work so important is that his evidence-much of it from his own original research-challenges what historians have traditionally believed as well.

Bellesiles explores the development of an American gun culture by following the hardware. He relentlessly focuses on the guns themselves: how many there were, who made them, who had them, where they were kept, and how they were used. Two broad themes emerge. First, rather than being symbols of rugged individualism or liberty, guns in early America were considered community property and subject to strict governmental regulation-far stricter than anything imagined today. Second, rather than being ubiquitous in the American frontier, there were, in fact, few guns in America until after the Mexican War.

No one knows who invented the gun-the device that uses gunpowder to propel a projectile. Guns first appeared in a European drawing in 1326 and in a Chinese drawing six years later.2 The Europeans pursued firearm development more aggressively, however. By the end of the sixteenth century, guns were replacing longbows and crossbows in the English army.3 Here we encounter a paradox: the English army turned to guns while bows were still the superior weapon. An archer could shoot twelve arrows in the time it took a rifleman to load a musket.4 Guns were also wildly inaccurate beyond ten yards while the longbow had an effective range of up to three hundred yards.' Nevertheless, in 1595 the Privy Council discontinued archers in English forces.5

What explains this mystery? Bellesiles believes that the government preferred firearms because they could be more easily controlled.' Forces-particularly the civilian militia-armed with bows could turn against the government. And it was not hard to replace bows, make arrows, or train archers. Firearms, however, were an entirely different matter. With military forces relying on guns rather than bows and arrows, the government could effectively control weaponry and the capacity to wage war by maintaining strict control over the production and possession of guns and gunpowder. Militiamen were not permitted to keep guns at home, and guns were stored in government magazines.8

From the earliest days of firearm development, England rigorously regulated gun possession and use. The regulation was very much classbased; fifteenth-century monarchs and sixteenth-century Parliaments restricted firearm ownership to the elite and the wealthy.9 Henry VII, who assumed the English throne in 1485, outlawed the wheelock because he feared it had the potential to make the poor powerful.j In 1541, Parliament enacted legislation allowing only nobles and wealthy property owners to have guns.11 James I, who ruled from 1603 to 1625, famously declared that "it is not fit that clowns" hunt with guns.12 Later in the seventeenth century, Parliament required that all militia guns be stored in government magazines13 and decreed that all guns in gun shops were state property subject to seizure at any time. …

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