Last updated: 11/26/2001|GunCite Home|
Excerpted from Michael Bellesiles's Arming America, pp. 72-73, 79-80 (2000)
This page is part of a larger discussion of Bellesile's' work here .
pp. 72-73
The English government supplied the majority of firearms to the Americans, hoping that settlers would defend themselves and not need the expensive aid of regular trooops. But the Crown did not provide anywhere near sufficient numbers of guns, passing the burden on to the Colonial governments. These governments in turn hoped to limit their expenses by requring all freemen to own a gun. In its earliest years, Virginia even required all freemen to bring guns to church; each freeman had to be ready to serve as a sentinel, with "both ends of his match being alight, and his piece charged, and primed, and bullets in his mouth." Few freemen welcomed this duty, and fewer still could afford firearms, so it became necessary for governments to supply them, with laws passed to effect that purpose. At the same time, legislators feared that gun-toting freemen might, under special circumstances, pose a threat to the very polity they were supposed to defend. Colonial legislatures therefore strictly regulated the storage of firearms, with the 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.10

The eventual solution to the lack of care devoted to firearms was to make all guns into the property of the state, subject to storage in central storehouses where they could be cleaned and repaired by paid government gunsmiths. Thus the Connecticut assembly, annoyed that "complaints are still made of intolerable [guns] or insufficiencies and gross defects in arms and ammunition... notwithstanding all former lawes and orders," mandated the appointment of muster-masters in each county to inspect all arms and powder and to prescribe the necessary repairs. These muster-masters not only could compel the labor of anyone discovered to have a knowledge of firearms, but they also had the authority to seize property to pay for repairs or to impress any firearms needed for the community's defense and to command towns to purchase more firearms.30

Though the colonies supported and subsidized the private ownership of firearms, the government reserved to itself the right to impress arms on any occasion, either as a defensive measure against possible insurrection or for use by the state. No gun ever belonged unqualifiedly to an individual. It could not be seized in a debt case, could not be sold if that sale left a militia member without a firearm, had to be listed in every probate inventory and returned to the state if state-owned, and could be seized whenever needed by the state for alternative purposes. Guns might be privately owned, but they were state-controlled.31