Rights, one provision of which guarantee the right to bear arms—
but only to Protestants.
English vs. Colonial Militias
At the same time the Stuarts and Protestants were struggling in
England, the dynamic played out in America, though to what
degree is a matter of debate.
The English brought the militia tradition to America. 7 But unlike
England, most of the colonial militias consisted of all able-bodied
white guys between 16 and 60. 8 Thus, nearly every white man
in America had some form of military training in a relatively
large and universal militia system. Though the militia declined in
England, it did not in America. 9
In addition, the colonial laws, unlike English laws, required every
man to own his arms unless he was too poor. 10 There was little
distinction, therefore, between “keeping” and “bearing” arms,
because a colonial militiaman usually brought his own gun to the
It may well have been that the average colonial militiaman did not
view his gun as much as a right but rather as a tax. 12 Given that a
colonial American did not pay taxes to maintain a police force,
and Great Britain picked up the tab for the military, such requirements were not revolutionary. Thus, the state could compel one
to serve in the militia, outfit himself with a weapon, and expend
ammunition, while bearing absolutely no legal obligation to compensate him for his expenses. This was taxation. 13
Many an American colonial and early citizen would have been all
too happy to have less of a “right to keep and bear arms.” 14
—continued in next month’s issue
12. See Churchill, Gun
Regulation, at 147, on
requirements that every
colonial American provide
his own guns. This tax
carried through to the
early republic. For exam-
ple, the Uniform Militia
Act of 1792 provided that “every free able-bodied male citizen of the respective states”
between 18 and 45 had to provide his own arms and “[t]hat every citizen so enrolled
… shall … provide himself with a good musket or firelock, a sufficient bayonet, belt,
two spare flints, and a
knapsack, a pouch with
a box therein to contain
not less than twenty-four
cartridges … each
cartridge to contain a
proper quantity of
powder and ball.”
Quoted in LEVY at 143.
13 See Saul Cornell & Nathan DeDino, A Well Regulated Right: The Early American
Origins Of Gun Control, 73 FORDHAM L. REV. 487, 496 (2004) (citing the Pennsylvania
Constitution of 1776 as an example, Pa. Const. of 1776, Declaration of Rights, § VIII).
In addition to federal militia requirements, several state militia statutes had fairly
universal requirements such as to turn out for regular musters and be armed with
certain equipment. See Cornell & DeDino at 509–10.
14. Back to Hawkeye and the Gun Myth. It could be that most militiamen were not
very good shots. See Bogus, Hidden History, at 341–42. Most colonial Americans lived
in cities or well-settled rural farming communities. They would not have needed to be
good shots. An academic debate exists on whether most colonial Americans even had
many guns outside of the militia’s public magazines. See, e.g., Churchill, Gun
Regulation, at 147 n. 23. outlining the scholarship. The fact remains that although
Hawkeye never misses, the rest of us do.
Coming Next Month in
Shooting Your Mouth Off About the Second Amendment
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.
—The Second Amendment
11. Muster means in the
military sense to assemble
troops or soldiers or sign
them up for service.
The word comes from the
Latin monstrare meaning
to show or display as
in the English words
It is also related to the
Latin word monstrum for
a divine omen indicating
misfortune, which is the
origin of the word monster.
WEBSTER’S at 1589.
Boris Karloff as the monster in FRANKENSTEIN
(Universal Pictures 1931).
For a complete list of all works cited in this article, see the online version: