Unlike most of
the world's people, many Americans view the possession of
firearms as the norm rather than the exception.
European and Japanese feudal aristocracies loathed firearms,
because they eliminated the role of the nobility in combat.
Firearms democratized warfare, penetrated armor, and allowed
fighting from a distance, thereby greatly reducing the importance
of the nobility's old skills with swords in close combat.
In Japan and much of Europe, the aristocracy promoted laws
restricting or prohibiting the possession of firearms, especially
handguns, by common people.
continental Europe and England, hunting was tightly controlled
by the aristocracy. Common people were often forbidden even
to kill a rabbit that was eating their crops on their own
land. No sane governor or legislature in the American colonies
would have attempted to impose European-style hunting or
gun-control laws, for such repressive laws would have made
it impossible for much of the American population to survive.
Colonial laws generally required each household to possess
a firearm, for service in the militia and other civil defense.
Households that could not afford a gun were often given
"public arms" by the government to keep at home.
English colonies did not have as rough a frontier as the
United States did. Canada's white settlement was mostly
peaceful, thanks to careful government negotiations with
the indigenous peoples. Nor did Canada have a "Wild
West" like the United States, where citizens ubiquitously
carried handguns for protection, in the absence of effective
law enforcement. In Canada, though, the Mounted Police showed
up when the first railroad towns were being built. Order
was imposed from above.
American Revolution was in part assisted by America's already
well-developed gun culture. The United States won independence
through a sustained armed popular revolt, as the Swiss (armed
with crossbows) had done beginning in 1291, when the first
three cantons battled for freedom from Austria.
the approximately 400,000 American men in active service
against Great Britain during the Revolution, the militia
amounted to about 165,000. Although the militiamen turned
in some miserable performances, such as when those from
Virginia fled at Camden, South Carolina, in 1780, the irregular
forces, when supported by the Continental Army, could fight
effectively. For example, they did splendidly in the 1781
Battle of Cowpens, South Carolina--the turning point of
the war in the South--which set the stage for the coup de
grace at Yorktown, Virginia.
militia played a major role in defeating Gen. John Burgoyne's
1777 Saratoga campaign, which had tried to isolate New England
from the rest of the United States. In 1778--79, the Kentucky
militia, led by George Rogers Clark, captured key British
posts on the Wabash River in the future states of Indiana
and Illinois. The victories helped legitimize America's
claim to all British territory east of the Mississippi,
a claim that Britain eventually recognized in the 1783 peace
Washington's Partisan War: 1775--1783, Mark W. Kwasny examines
George Washington's use of the militias in Connecticut,
New York, and New Jersey. The scholar writes that while
those forces could not by themselves defeat the Redcoats
in a pitched battle, the irregulars were essential to American
success: "Militiamen were available everywhere and
could respond to sudden attacks and invasions often faster
than the army could." Washington "used them in
small parties to harass and raid the army and to guard all
the places he could not send Continentals."
the war came to an end, Washington wrote in his 1783 "Circular
to the States": "The Militia of this Country must
be considered as the Palladium of our security, and the
first effectual resort in case of hostility."
and federal constitutions
in 1774, when the British army occupying Boston began confiscating
the inhabitants' firearms, the American Revolution confirmed
what the founders had learned from their studies of ancient
Greece and Rome, as well as from English and French history:
The possession of arms was essential to the retention of
political and civil rights.
"standard model" view of the Second Amendment--that
the Bill of Rights guarantees every law-abiding
adult the right to own guns--is accepted by most
Opponents of this view adhere to the "states'
right" theory, which claims the amendment only
applies to state militias' right to arms.
In more than 35 cases, the Supreme Court has ruled
that the Second Amendment refers to individuals'
right to gun ownership rather than the states' right.
The founders wrote the amendment with the belief
that securing citizens' rights to arms would discourage
When gun ownership is in the hands of ordinary citizens
who don't abuse the right, crime is deterred, which
makes society safer.
Cities that sue the gun industry are on shaky legal
ground, for their failure to keep criminals away
from guns is at least as big a factor in gun crimes
as the industry's manufacture of firearms.
starting with the Pennsylvania and North Carolina constitutions
in 1776, American state constitutions have usually included
a right to arms provision. The federal constitution added
the Second Amendment in 1791.
federal and state constitutions have helped develop a "rights
consciousness" far stronger than can be found in any
other nation. The very existence of written rights--taught
in school and upheld by the courts--inculcates in people
a greater and greater determination to uphold their rights.
this way, the rights consciousness engendered by the written
"right to arms" led to additional protections
for rights. Since 1963, the people of Alaska, Connecticut,
Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Illinois, Louisiana,
Maine, Michigan, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Hampshire,
New Mexico, North Carolina, Utah, Virginia, West Virginia,
and Wisconsin have chosen, either through their legislature
or through a direct vote, to add a right to arms to their
state constitution or to readopt the right to arms or strengthen
an existing right. In every state where the people have
had the opportunity to vote directly, they have voted for
the right to arms by overwhelming margins. In 1998, Wisconsin
voted the right to arms in a 74 percent landslide.
only other nation with a right to arms in its constitution
is Mexico. As stated in Article 10: "The inhabitants
of the United Mexican States have the right to possess arms
in their homes for their security and legitimate defense
with the exception of those prohibited by federal law and
of those reserved for the exclusive use of the Army, Navy,
Air Force, and National Guard. Federal law shall determine
the cases, conditions and place in which the inhabitants
may be authorized to bear arms."
Mexican constitutional provision may create some rights
consciousness in that nation, although the effect is undoubtedly
diminished by the general cynicism about the law, and the
lack of respect given most constitutional rights in that
National Rifle Association (NRA) is another cause and consequence
of America's gun culture. The group was founded in 1871
by Union generals who were dismayed by poor Union marksmanship
during the Civil War. The Confederate forces, having a higher
percentage of farm boys who were familiar with guns, had
better marksmanship. The NRA is not only the most powerful
gun lobby in the world, it is (according to Fortune magazine's
annual ratings) the most powerful lobby of any kind in the
United States. Three of the last four American presidents
have been NRA members, and one American president, Ulysses
Grant, served as NRA chief after his term ended.
NRA is more successful than its foreign counterparts because
it operates in a better political environment. Only Switzerland
devolves more power than the United States to local governments.
control of elected officials is weaker in the United States
than elsewhere, the political system is less centralized,
and the role of citizen political activists is considerably
greater than in most other democracies. All of these factors
give the NRA's four million members a much greater ability
to influence elected officials than gun rights groups in
other countries have. In turn, the NRA's political successes
help preserve widespread participation in the shooting sports
and the ability to own guns for personal protection. Because
a large share of the population is armed, the NRA has a
large potential base of members and activists.
modern supporters of the Second Amendment, like their forbears
of the founding era, are quite sensitive to "slippery
slope" arguments. The experience of Great Britain suggests
that these activists are not mistaken. Early in the twentieth
century, Great Britain had almost no violent crime, no gun
control laws, and widespread gun ownership. During the twentieth
century, a variety of "moderate" licensing and
registration laws were imposed, enforced liberally, and
then, through secret administrative decrees from London,
enforced with greater and greater severity. Currently, only
about 4 percent of the British population own guns lawfully.
The fraction of the population is much too small to resist
the drive of the Home Office bureaucracy for gradual gun
some Americans are embarrassed that their nation has a distinctively
strong constitutional right to arms and a vigorous gun culture,
the United States consciously created itself to be different
from Europe. As a North Carolina Supreme Court justice explained
in the 1968 case of State v. Dawson, "It was the very
fact that the right to bear arms had been infringed in England,
and that this is a step frequently taken by a despotic government,
which caused the adoption of the provision in the North
Carolina Declaration of Rights in 1776 and the insertion
in the Federal Bill of Rights of the Second Amendment."
early republic's leading constitutional commentators, St.
George Tucker and William Rawle, pointedly contrasted the
robust American right to bear arms with what they thought
was a withered British right. Supreme Court Justice Joseph
Story's famed Commentaries on the Constitution also contrasted
the vigorous American right to bear arms with its feeble
independent existence of the United States came into being
with a document whose opening words affirm the right of
the people to overthrow the government. In Europe, armed
masses represent disorder; in the United States, they are
the foundation of the political order.
Madison, in Federalist 46, extolled "the advantage
of being armed, which the Americans possess over the people
of almost every other nation," in contrast with the
kingdoms of Europe, whose "governments are afraid to
trust the people with arms." Madison predicted that
if the European peasantry were armed and rebellious local
governments (like American states) existed, "the throne
of every tyranny in Europe would be speedily overturned."
Joel Barlow, a leading diplomat and author of the 1780s
and '90s, wrote about this in his book Advice to the Privileged
Orders in the Several States of Europe. He said that in
Europe, an armed populace would be regarded "as a mark
of an uncivilized people, extremely dangerous to a well-ordered
society." Barlow contended that because the American
system was built on popular sovereignty, which brought out
the best in man's character, the people could be trusted
with guns: "It is because the people are civilized
that they are with safety armed."
Revolutionary-era Americans thought an unarmed populace
was a sign of ethical decay. The Continental Congress distinguished
Americans "trained to arms from the infancy and animated
by love of liberty" from the "debauched, dissipated,
and disarmed" British. We can assume that America's
founders would not have been surprised to see that starting
in 1936 with Hitler's Anschluss of Austria, European elites
speedily surrendered their nations to the Nazis, either
before the shooting began or a few weeks afterward.
repeatedly made plans for the invasion of Switzerland, but
they were never executed because German casualties would
have been immense. The Swiss militiaman was under orders
to fight to the last bullet, and after that with his bayonet,
and then with his bare hands. Rather than having to defeat
an army, Hitler would have had to defeat a whole people.
differences among nations
of a Gun Culture
differences on gun-ownership rights that separate
the United States from most of Europe are rooted in
America's unique early history.
European nations limited firearm ownership to the
nobility, whereas the harsh conditions of the U.S.
frontier, absence of an aristocratic class, and need
for civil defense in early America fostered a citizen
This culture was boosted by the Revolution, by which
America became the first colony of its age to win
independence through a sustained armed popular revolt.
The federal and state constitutions reflect the belief
that arms possession is key to upholding political
and civil rights, spurring citizens and lobbyists
to stand up for gun rights.
While Europeans see an armed populace as uncivilized,
Americans view the issue through the lens of popular
sovereignty, believing that gun ownership makes society
to the Small Arms Survey 2003, the European nations of Norway,
Finland, France, and Germany have the most guns (about 30--39
per 100 persons); the Netherlands, Hungary, and Romania
the least (no more than 2 guns per 100 persons). The survey
estimates that Americans own between 83 and 96 guns per
100 persons, or nearly one per person
But what most
distinguishes American gun culture even from prevailing
attitudes in countries such as Canada--which has a very
strong hunting tradition and rate of rifle ownership nearly
as high as the U.S. level--is that Americans connect gun
ownership not just to recreation but to survival and sovereignty.
Because about half of all American households own guns,
America's "home invasion" burglary rate is far
lower than in countries such as Britain, Canada, Ireland,
and the Netherlands, which prohibit defensive gun ownership.
of American states allow law-abiding adults to obtain
a permit to carry a concealed handgun for lawful protection.
Encouraged by the NRA and other gun-rights groups, many
of these citizens carry their guns more frequently since
September 11. They know that in case of a terrorist attack
on a shopping center, school, church, or synagogue, it
will be America's citizens who will be responsible for
taking immediate action to save their fellow Americans.
for civil defense are appalling to American gun-prohibition
advocates and their international allies. At both the
personal and the national level, Americans tend to expect
to protect themselves by force, and Europeans tend to
expect a superior entity to do it for them. The cultural
differences between America and Europe are in some ways
just as profound in the early twenty-first century as
they were in the late eighteenth.
Stephen P. Halbrook, Target Switzerland: Swiss Armed Neutrality
in World War II, Da Capo Press, Boulder Colo., 1998.
Lee Malcolm, Guns and Violence: The English Experience,
Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass., 2002.
Arms Survey. Annual yearbooks and occasional papers, available
A variety of scholarly journal articles by David B. Kopel
on foreign gun laws are available for free on Kopel's Web
David B. Kopel (www.davekopel.org)
is research director at the Independence Institute and an
associate policy analyst at the Cato Institute. He is author
of numerous books and articles on firearms law and policy,
including The Samurai, the Mountie, and the Cowboy: Should
America Adopt the Gun Controls of Other Democracies?