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Thread: Historical Basis of the Right To Keep and Bear Arms

  1. #1

    Historical Basis of the Right To Keep and Bear Arms

    Historical Bas{i}s of the Right To Keep and Bear Arms
    by David T. Hardy,[*] Partner in the Law Firm Sando & Hardy


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    In analyzing the right to keep and bear arms, we must constantly keep in mind that it is one of the few rights in the Constitution which can claim any considerable antiquity. Freedom of the press, for instance, had little ancestry at common law: statutes requiring a government license to publish any works on political or religious matters were in effect in England until 1695, when they were allowed to expire for economic, not libertarian, reasons.[1] Long after that date, prosecutions after-the-fact for seditious libel were common. In the Colonies, these and similar statutes were likewise enforced and offending religious material was burned in Massachusetts as late as 1723.[2] Protests against general search warrants did not become common until after 1760, and the invalidity of such warrants at common law was not recognized until the eve of the American Revolution.[3]

    In contrast to these rights, the right to keep and bear arms can claim an ancestry stretching for well over a millennium. The antiquity of the right is so great that it is all but impossible to document its actual beginning. It is fairly clear that its origin lay in the customs of Germanic tribes, under which arms bearing was a right and a duty of free men; in fact, the ceremony for giving freedom to a slave required that the former slave be presented with the armament of a free man.[4] {more in scan below} He then acquired the duty to serve in an equivalent of a citizen army. These customs were brought into England by the earliest Saxons. The first mention of the citizen army, or the "fyrd" is found in documents dating to 690 A.D., but scholars have concluded that the duty to serve in such with personal armament "is older than our oldest records." (Not knowing of the earlier records, 18th century legal historians including the great Blackstone attributed the origin of the English system to Alfred the Great, who ruled in the late 9th century A.D.)[5]

    This viewpoint of individual armament and duty differed greatly from the feudal system which were coming into existence in Europe. The feudal system presupposed that the vast bulk of fighting duties would fall to a small warrior caste, composed primarily of the mounted knight. These individuals held the primary political and military power. Thus peasant armament was a threat to the political status quo. In England, on the other hand, a system evolved whereby peasant armament became the great underpinning of the status quo and individual armament became viewed as a right rather than a threat.

    This in turn significantly changed the evolution of political systems in Britain. Since so much military power lay with the private citizen, the traditional monarchy was necessarily much more a limited monarchy than an absolute one. Even after the Norman (p.46)Conquest of 1066, which brought feudal systems into Britain, kings regularly appealed to the people for assistance. William Rufus, second Norman king of England, was driven to appeal to the citizenry to put down a rebellion of feudal barons. To obtain the assistance of the individual armed citizen, he promised the people of England to provide better laws then had ever been made, to rescind all new taxes instituted during his reign, and to annul the hated forest laws which imposed draconian punishments; inspired by his promises, the citizenry rose with their arms and defended his government against the rebels.[6] After his death, his brother, Henry I, often drilled the citizen units in person, seeking to appeal to the individual members. In short, kingship in Britain became a far more democratic affair than it would ever become on the Continent, due in major part to the individual armament of the British citizen.

    The Angevin monarchs expanded this still farther. Henry II, who is considered the father of the common law, promulgated the Assize of Arms in 1181. This required all British citizens between 15 and 40 to purchase and keep arms. The type of arms required varied with wealth; the wealthiest had to provide themselves with full armor, sword, dagger, and war horse, while even the poorest citizens, "the whole community of freemen", must have leather armor, helmet and a lance.[7] Twice a year all citizens were to be inspected by the king's officials to insure that they possessed the necessary arms. Conversely, the English made it quite clear that the king was to be expected to depend exclusively upon his armed freemen. When rebellious barons forced John I to sign the Magna Carta in 1215, they inserted in its prohibitions a requirement that he "expel from the kingdom all foreign knights, crossbowmen, sergeants, and mercenaries, who have come with horses and weapons to the harm of the realm."

    Henry III continued this tradition. In his 1253 Assize of Arms he expanded the age categories to include everyone between 15 and 60 years of age, and made a further modification which bordered on the revolutionary. Now, not only were freemen to be armed, but even villeins, who were little more than serfs and were bound to the land. Now all "citizens, burgesses, free tenants, villeins and others from 15 to 60 years of age" were legally required to be armed.[8] Even the poorest classes of these were required to have a halberd (a pole arm with an axe and spike head) and a knife, plus a bow if they owned lands worth over two pounds sterling.

    The role of the armed citizen expanded under the rule of the four Edwards. During civil wars in Wales, Edward I discovered the utility of the Welsh longbow, an extremely potent bow (its pull was estimated to have been between 100-200 pounds, whereas today a 60-pound bow is considered extremely powerful) which could penetrate the heaviest armor. Unlike the crossbow (and to an even greater extent, the armor and horse of the mounted knight) the longbow could be made cheaply enough and maintained easily enough to become the universal armament of all citizens. While on the Continent so deadly a weapon was considered a threat to the rule of the armored knight, in Britain its use was encouraged by the monarch. At Crecy, Poitiers and Agincourt, the longbow in the hands of British commoners decimated the French armored (p.47)knights. By 1369 Edward III was ordering the sheriffs of London to require "everyone of said city stronge in body, at leisure time on holidays" to "use in their recreation bowes and arrows."[9] He hardly needed the encouragement; the archery ranges outside London were so constantly swamped with arrows that no grass would grow upon them. Edward IV continued this policy, commanding that "every Englishman or Irishman dwelling in England must have a bow of his own height", and commanding that each town build and maintain an archery range upon which every citizen must practice on feast days.[10] In 1470 he banned games of dice, horseshoes, and tennis in order to force citizens to use nothing but the bow for sport.[11] He imposed price controls on bows in order to ensure that bows would be inexpensive enough for even the poorest citizen to purchase them.[12]

    While the common law sought to force all commoners to possess what was then the most deadly military weapon, it also imposed only the most minimal restraints upon use of that weapon. These focused purely upon criminal misuse of the weapon or its transportation into certain highly protected areas. In 1279, for instance, those coming before the royal courts were required to "come without all force and armor".[13] The Statute of Arms, whose date of enactment is uncertain, required that spectators at tournaments attend without armament and that those participating in the tournament carry swords without points.[14] The 1328 Statute of Northampton prohibited anyone, other than the king's servants or citizens attempting to keep the peace, from coming before the king's ministers "with force and arms", or acting "in affray of the peace", and from going or riding "armed by night or by day in fairs, markets, nor in the presence of the justices or other ministers nor in no part elsewhere...."[15] In light of the common law preference for individual armament, however, English courts construed this to mean that only carrying of arms in a threatening or terrifying manner was prohibited. In the words of William Hawkins in his "Pleas of the Crown", "no wearing of arms is within the meaning of the statute, unless it be accompanied with such circumstances as are apt to terrify the people; from which it seems to follow, that persons of quality are in no danger of offending against the statute by wearing common weapons...."[16] Thus the sole common law restraints upon use of armament in this period focused either upon carrying into specially protected areas or upon what today would be considered assault with a deadly weapon.

    While firearms had been invented sometime before, only in the 16th century did they become truly portable with the invention of the wheellock. This breakthrough inspired a number of attempts in Europe and England to control weaponry. The Emperor Maximilian attempted to impose bans upon wheellock manufacture throughout his empire on the Continent; the French imposed strict controls both upon manufacture and sale of firearms and upon assembly of ammunition and making of powder.[17] The English briefly experimented with such but found them repugnant to their institutions. Henry VII had in 1503 banned the shooting of crossbows upon an extremely limited basis.[18] ...

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    Last edited by allodial; 12-19-15 at 05:16 AM.
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    "The object in life is not to be on the side of the majority, but to escape finding oneself in the ranks of the insane." -- Marcus Aurelius
    "It is the glory of God to conceal a thing: but the honour of kings is to search out a matter." Proverbs 25:2
    Prove all things; hold fast that which is good. Thess. 5:21.

  2. #2
    You always come with the fiya ....

    What I have noticed is that European cultures have very strong martial cultures that permeate all areas of their cultures.

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