Early American Armament Regulations

Were there state or federal laws regulating the private ownership of any type of armaments in early American history? If a private citizen wanted to have a cannon loaded with grapeshot on his front lawn, was this in any way illegal?

I’m asking this because one of the arguments for gun control is that the Founding Fathers couldn’t have imagined weapons as dangerous as today’s. Obviously there’s a big difference between a cannon and an automatic rifle in terms of portability, concealment, etc. , but there were still weapons at that time capable of killing a lot of people quickly. Were these weapons legal for private citizens to own?

I think this belongs here since it has a factual answer, but given the subject matter I apologize if it should have gone in GD.

Hey cmburns,

“Were there state or federal laws regulating the private ownership of any type of armaments in early American history?”

My knowledge is limited mostly to early Georgia, but I do know that at the onset of hostilities in January of 1776, the Georgia Council of Safety ordered that powder and guns belonging to slaves were to be confiscated, allowing only one musket per overseer, with 13 cartridges. This appears to have been limited to the plantations around Savannah. There is no record of any confiscation of any weapons belonging to citizens of the state, and according to the Militia Law of 1778, each person liable to serve in the militia had to supply his own weapon, ball, and powder.

“If a private citizen wanted to have a cannon loaded with grapeshot on his front lawn, was this in any way illegal?”

I don’t think it ever occurred to anyone at the time to try to regulate this, since it would be illogical for a settler to have his own personal cannon. Cannon were expensive, not available in large quantities from the local cannon store since they came from European foundries, and had to be served by a crew and drawn by horses. (Discounting things like small wall guns or swivel guns) Individual use of a cannon as your primary weapon would have been silly. Artillery without a protecting force is pretty much useless.

Gentlemen of means could afford to buy cannon as part of raising their own volunteer artillery companies, or as protection for fortified settlements out in the frontier, but no one just went out and bought them just ‘cause they could; so I believe the idea of legislating against such things just wouldn’t have made sense. Powder and shot were available in bulk quantities, so if someone wanted to go blow places to kingdom-come, they could have. This wasn’t high on most folks agenda, though. At the time, Georgia was relatively poor and had no established military force, and the problem was not on eliminating guns and powder, it was on scrounging enough to field an effective fighting force.

Other states may have passed such laws about heavy armaments , but my knowledge is Georgia, and I have seen nothing to indicate that any sort of these armaments were ever outlawed for use by private citizens. The impediments to their ownership by individuals would have been matters of cost, availability, and utility. If anyone has a cite for such a law in revolutionary Georgia, please email me so I can add it to our material.

(For what it’s worth, muzzle loading black powder cannons are legal for people to own today, subject to local regulation. Our unit commander keeps his in the garage, though, not in his front yard.)

Hope you get some more answers!

Thanks for a very informative answer. I guess I was thinking more along theoretical lines like “Does the government we are forming have the right to control the ownership of any type of weapon?”. It didn’t occur to me that there might be a practical reason it wouldn’t have been illegal, mainly there’s no point outlawing something no one would do.

Well, if you’re talking theory, I think this might be better asked over in Great Debates. From a pro-ownership point of view, you might want to check out an article entitled “The Embarrasing Second Amendment” by Sanford Levinson, University of Texas at Austin School of Law. A copy of it may be found here http://www.2ndlawlib.org/

Of course, this is a website which advocates in private ownership, and obviously there are other sites which advocate opposing views.


Remember, the intention of the 2nd amendment was not to give individuals the right to keep guns “per se” but to deny the Executive an excuse to maintain a standing army - a hang-up inherited from the English Bill of Rights of 1689.

The founding fathers would therefore definitely have included cannon under the category of “arms”. But they would probably have assumed that such weapons would have belonged to a local militia rather than (say) an enthusiast with no friends.

:wink: is Greatly Debated! :wink:

cmburns, look over in the GD forum in any of the fifty-eleven bajillion threads about the intent of the framers of the Constitution re the Second Amendment. After a while, your head will start to hurt!

As for your OP, maybe someone can give you some more cites for firearms laws in other colonies and states.

Hemlock–Whaddya mean “Enthusiast with no friends?” Everyone wants to be friends with the cannon guy!

45ACP: I’m agnostic on the gun control debate (both sides seem attached to absurd and extreme arguments). But I do have an interest in the ideological origins of the American Revolution. The debates in that field are less intense, and there’s no more argument about why the 2nd amendment came into being than about the rest of the Bill of Rights.

Basically, the founders updates (and hugely improved) this…

But I’m glad to hear the cannon guy has plenty of friends. When does he let the thing off?

Extreme is putting it mildly.

One of the best research tools I have found about American Constitutional history is The Avalon Project by the Yale School of Law. http://www.yale.edu/lawweb/avalon/constpap.htm

Just about every contemporary documentary source related to the development of the Constitution, including sources such as the 1689 Bill of Rights you cited.

Ahem…[sub]I can’t speak for any of the other cannon guys out there, but ours lets his thing off quite regularly.[/sub]:eek: Not that there’s anything wrong with that…