This Article reviews the British gun control program that precipitated the American Revolution: the 1774 import ban on firearms and gunpowder; the 1774-75 confiscations of firearms and gunpowder; and the use of violence to effectuate the confiscations. It was these events that changed a situation of political tension into a shooting war. Each of these British abuses provides insights into the scope of the modern Second Amendment.
Furious at the December 1773 Boston Tea Party, Parliament in 1774 passed the Coercive Acts. The particular provisions of the Coercive Acts were offensive to Americans, but it was the possibility that the British might deploy the army to enforce them that primed many colonists for armed resistance. The Patriots of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, resolved: “That in the event of Great Britain attempting to force unjust laws upon us by the strength of arms, our cause we leave to heaven and our rifles.” A South Carolina newspaper essay, reprinted in Virginia, urged that any law that had to be enforced by the military was necessarily illegitimate.
The Royal Governor of Massachusetts, General Thomas Gage, had forbidden town meetings from taking place more than once a year. When he dispatched the Redcoats to break up an illegal town meeting in Salem, 3000 armed Americans appeared in response, and the British retreated. Gage’s aide John Andrews explained that everyone in the area aged 16 years or older owned a gun and plenty of gunpowder.
Military rule would be difficult to impose on an armed populace. Gage had only 2,000 troops in Boston. There were thousands of armed men in Boston alone, and more in the surrounding area. One response to the problem was to deprive the Americans of gunpowder.
Two days after Lord Dartmouth dispatched his disarmament recommendation, King George III and his ministers blocked importation of arms and ammunition to America. Read literally, the order merely required a permit to export arms or ammunition from Great Britain to America. In practice, no permits were granted.
Similar to the threats of ammunition taxes, restrictions, shipping bans, etc., that are going on today. Same gun control plans, same tyrannical objectives.
The British government was not, in a purely formal sense, attempting to abolish the Americans’ common law right of self-defense. Yet in practice, that was precisely what the British were attempting. First, by disarming the Americans, the British were attempting to make the practical exercise of the right of personal self-defense much more difficult. Second, and more fundamentally, the Americans made no distinction between self-defense against a lone criminal or against a criminal government. To the Americans, and to their British Whig ancestors, the right of self-defense necessarily implied the right of armed self-defense against tyranny.
At Lexington and Concord, forcible disarmament had not worked out for the British. So back in Boston, Gage set out to disarm the Bostonians a different way.
On April 23, 1775, Gage offered the Bostonians the opportunity to leave town if they surrendered their arms. The Boston Selectmen voted to accept the offer, and within days, 2,674 guns were deposited, one gun for every two adult male Bostonians.
Gage thought that many Bostonians still had guns, and he refused to allow the Bostonians to leave.
Someone disarming you who doesn’t honor their word? Naw, never happened before!
To the Americans of the Revolution and the Founding Era, the theory of some late-20th Century courts that the Second Amendment is a “collective right” and not an “individual right” might have seemed incomprehensible. The Americans owned guns individually, in their homes. They owned guns collectively, in their town armories and powder houses. They would not allow the British to confiscate their individual arms, nor their collective arms; and when the British tried to do both, the Revolution began. The Americans used their individual arms and their collective arms to fight against the confiscation of any arms. Americans fought to provide themselves a government that would never perpetrate the abuses that had provoked the Revolution.