Things that Aren’t True

Adam Winkler has become notable in our issue for pissing off both sides, which is a pretty good sign that he’s a moderate on the issue. But some of his assertions I don’t find persuasive, and others can be taken in such a way that they are misleading. Now it’s possible this individual is mis-stating something, but this is just wrong:

So it’s worth remembering: The gun lobby didn’t always lobby for free access to guns (particularly not for guns for African-Americans). And the folks who wrote the Second Amendment were all in favor of a “well-regulated militia” whose members — at that time, the general (white) populace — had to declare, register and present to government agents on a regular basis all of their firearms.

To the best of my knowledge there was never any requirement that people register their firearms with any colonial or early-American government. When turning out for muster, they would be expected to bring their personal arm, which they were required by law to own, and that arm could be inspected to ensure it was in serviceable condition, and that the individual had enough ammunition to comply with the requirements of the act. But it’s not like they punched serial numbers on guns back then. Serial numbers are actually relatively recent phenomena, I believe not in common practice until the 19th century, and even then not uniquely identifying until the mid-2oth century.

So equating the requirements of the various colonial or early American militia laws to the modern conception of universal registration is a bit disingenuous. No one in colonial times was keeping records of the guns owned by your average John Smith militia member. It’s certainly valid to suggest that the founding generation were strong believers in the militia requirements of the day, which compelled able bodied men (and sometimes women) to arm themselves, keep their firearms in serviceable condition, and report periodically for muster and drill. It’s also valid to suggest that many founders, who didn’t view African American as citizens, or even individuals imbued with the same human rights as white folk, understood that many laws at the time disarmed blacks. But I’m not sure how that should inform us about the validity of modern gun control any more than it should inform us about the validity of anti-miscegenation laws. The pretext for many of the laws whic barred non-citizens from firearms ownership are repugnant to modern society, so I’m not sure they ought to inform us as to whether many modern forms of gun control are fine.

15 thoughts on “Things that Aren’t True”

  1. What I have seen of Winkler’s book strikes me as very misleading, even deceptive. While members of the militia were required to show up for musters, the notion of “registering” guns is bizarre. At most, they had to show that they owned at least one qualified militia weapon: a musket, a rifle, or if calvary, a pair of pistols and a sword. It did not apply to any other guns that a person might own. This gun registration nonsense is one of the claims that Bellesiles made in Arming America, and it has absolutely no basis in fact.

    1. Perhaps the question is one of “what does registration mean”?

      In the modern context, “registration” means similar to the listing of serial numbers in a database for specific firearms. But in the ancient context, would it have meant a listing in a record of a gun, what type it is, and a name?

      Numerous “no-compromise” gun rights organization regularly oppose concealed carry licensing of any kind, calling it a “registration of gun owners”, though the truth is that a person could have a carry license and not own a gun (Unless you’re in New York or California).

      1. The most that would have been listed is that Mr. Smith had shown up with a required weapon. It was the failures to show up adequately armed that make it into the records. I have not seen any listing of militiamen and what gun they brought to musters, ever. Nor did Bellesiles, who claimed registration, provide any such records.

      2. Sometime later, I presume, the term registration was used for “adjusting the fire of [artillery] onto their targets by observation, and recording (hence “registering”) the final data of elevation and deflection needed to hit particular targets.” That’s a random 20th Century reference I found on the net, confirming my memory of the modern use of the term.

        Perhaps the term was used earlier for sighting in? Rifles, at least, would (I presume) need that.

        Clayton, you’ve read primary sources, was registration used in this manner for small arms back then?

  2. Winkler seems to have everything backward. As far as I know, the “gun lobby” as we know it has never advocated for keeping guns from minorities. That was the purpose of the original *limits* on guns (the first gun control laws), intended primarily to keep slaves and immigrants in their place. As far as I know, there’s no evidence to speak of that shows otherwise.

    As for the idea of gun registration in the colonial era is so ludicrous that Winkler should be shamed out of public discourse on the issue. I could make a more credible historical claim that George Washington landed in a spaceship from Mars.

  3. Slightly off topic but interesting.

    Back when we lived in Linwood NJ we sold our house and moved to PA, interesting part was the original deed to the property had on it that “The property shall only be sold to members of the Caucasian race”, it was struck out at some point but evidently it was against the law for non-Caucasians to live in Linwood back in the late 50’s!


    1. The racially restrictive deed covenants were declared contrary to public policy in Shelley v. Kraemer (1948), and unenforceable by courts. The language persisted (and still persists) in deeds because it is a hassle to remove it.

      By the way: many of these deed restrictions were put in at the insistence of the Federal Housing Authority, a 1930s New Deal agency that guaranteed loans to real estate developers. They wanted to make sure that the houses wouldn’t drop in value if the “wrong sorts” moved into the neighborhood.

      1. Come now Clayton, everyone knows that Comrade Roosevelt was a champioin of the poor and trod upon negro. He was also a steadfast champion of liberty and property rights of Japanese Americans, which was so bold for the times.

  4. There’s also this little tidbit: “The gun lobby didn’t always lobby for free access to guns (particularly not for guns for African-Americans).”

    Weren’t the first NRA chapters in the South founded by African Americans wanting to preserve their rights? Granted, the NRA wasn’t a “gun lobby” at the time…but then, the NRA didn’t become the “gun lobby” until the last few decades anyway, when it became clear that we needed one.

  5. I think he’s in need of some Metamucil and regularity himself, and he mistakes (and purposefully conflates) inspection and “registering” the musket with regulating it (“They also required that all muskets be regularly inspected and registered.”) – making sure it’s operable and getting the damn thing sighted-in at a known distance.
    And re Zermoid: Palo Alto, California (and much of the Bay Area/Peninsula) had similar race-restricted housing-deeds and property ownership laws that were only finally repealed and struck-down (removed) in the 50’s…

  6. I think one of the things that’s rather shocking about Professor Winkler’s assertion, is that he recognizes the racist history of many of our gun control laws, but then suggests that racist history somehow informs us as to the validity of modern gun control laws, since we once accepted restricting arms to people we fully intended to subjugate.

    I think perhaps the professor makes the error of assuming that the restrictions had to do with the percieved dangerousness of the minorities, rather than having to do with their subjegation. Laws restricting blacks, and the Sullivan law that was aimed at the swarthy WOPs, had nothing to do with their perceived dangerousness, but were meant to act as vehicle for which they could be subjugated into a lower class status.

  7. So that there’s less confusion, please note that Sebastian’s quote was not from my book or any of my writing. That was taken from a review of Gunfight, and represents the review author’s words, not mine. Nowhere in Gunfight do I claim that “all” guns – or even “all guns owned by militiamen” — were registered. Musters often did include a kind of colonial registration in that militiamen were expected to show up with appropriate arms and those guns would be inspected and noted on public rolls, as other historians, who I do cite and rely on in my book, such as Robert Churchill, have previously noted. The racist history of gun laws provides absolutely no justification for gun control today. In fact, the racist history provides good reason to second-guess modern gun control proposals. But just as marriage law was racist and voting law was racist doesn’t mean today we shouldn’t have marriage laws or voting laws. Nor does the racist history of gun control mean we shouldn’t make efforts to keep criminals from getting their hands on guns or keep guns out of government buildings, like the Supreme Court.

    1. My apologies if it wasn’t clear that the quote was the article’s writer’s interpretation, and that he might have gotten it wrong.

      I also think few of us would argue that all laws applying to firearms or other “arms” are unconstitutional, but I would argue, for instance, the Sullivan Law, which had its roots in disarming a disfavored minority, probably should be… at least the parts regarding discretionary issuance of licenses.

      1. In Gunfight and elsewhere, I’ve argued that discretionary permitting schemes are likely unconstitutional.

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