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Gun Control: A Historical Perspective, Part 1

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Gun control is an issue which never stands on its own. By this I mean that the motives behind it are rarely those expressed by its advocates. There is almost always a hidden agenda.

On rare occasion, those proposing the confiscation of weapons are candid about their motives. Such was the case in Japan in 1588 when the Shogun Hideyoshi disarmed the populace during what came to be called the Great Sword Hunt. He decreed: “The possession of unnecessary implements [of war] makes difficult the collection of taxes and dues, and tends to foment uprisings.”

The motivation behind gun control is much the same today; it’s just that our politicians are not as candid as Hideyoshi.

The Japanese populace has been disarmed ever since.

The Anglo-American tradition is much different. But before I discuss our own heritage, I’d like to tell you a little-known but tragic story of a people who disarmed for the sake of peace.

The story is that of the Roman destruction of Carthage in 146 B.C. At the time, Carthage, though defeated and forced to pay tribute to Rome, was not completely disarmed and was still a prosperous city-state. Too prosperous, in fact, for Rome.

Cato, who presided over the Roman Senate, ended every speech, no matter what the subject, with the words: “Besides, I think that Carthage must be destroyed.”

The pretext came when Carthage attempted to defend itself against raids by the Numidians. By treaty, Carthage could not make war without Rome’s consent. The Romans were deaf to pleas from Carthaginian envoys.

When Carthage declared war on Numidia in 151 B.C., Rome in turn declared war on Carthage. Carthage attempted to negotiate her way out of this dilemma. Rome promised to preserve the freedom and integrity of Carthage in exchange for 300 children of the noblest families as hostages, and a promise to obey whatever order the consuls gave. The Carthaginians reluctantly agreed.

Despite this assurance, Rome secretly sent an army and fleet to Utica, a neighbor of Carthage, and then demanded the surrender of all weapons, ships, and a huge amount of grain. When these conditions had been met, and the people and nation of Carthage had been disarmed, the Romans next demanded the populace move 10 miles from the city so that they could then burn it to the ground without hindrance.

The Carthaginan ambassadors argued in vain before the Roman consuls at the betrayal. They had exchanged the means to defend themselves for a promise from their most likely oppressors. Without striking a blow, the Romans had reduced a mighty nation against which they were unable to compete commercially to a defenseless mass of humanity.

When the people of Carthage realized what had happened, they went mad. They dragged their leaders through the streets, stoned and tore them limb from limb. They killed without hesitation those who had advised surrendering their arms. Some wept in the empty arsenals.

With a resolution they should have shown when the crisis began, the Carthaginians reformed their army and attempted to rearm themselves. They demolished public buildings and melted down statues to make the implements of war. In two months of frenzied work, they produced 8,000 shields, 18,000 swords, 30,000 spears, 60,000 catapult missiles and 120 ships!

Carthage resisted the Roman siege for three years. In the end, her preparations were too little, too late. She could not make up for the damage done in surrendering her means to resist years earlier. Once the walls of the city had been scaled, the fighting was street by street without quarter, and the snipers so intense that the Roman commander, Scipio Aemilianus, ordered captured streets to be set on fire and leveled, thereby killing thousands of Carthaginians hiding in the ruins. The slaughter lasted six days.

The city’s population had been reduced from 500,000 to 55,000 during its siege and capture. The survivors were sold as slaves, the city pillaged and then burned to the ground, its soil plowed and sown with salt. All Carthage’s dependencies who had stood by her were destroyed. The city burned for 17 days.

The Romans wanted to teach the world a lesson. They did. Our Anglo-Saxon forefathers learned it well, which is why we still have the tradition of a well-armed citizenry mistrustful of government as a potential oppressor or betrayer.

Armed individuals organized into voluntary home-defense units called militias are not unique to the Anglo-Saxon tradition. Assyria depended on such militias as long ago as 1,000 B.C.

The backbone of the early Greek and Roman armies consisted of highly patriotic, sturdy peasants organized into citizen militias.

In 4th-century India, men in various trades and crafts armed themselves and trained as soldiers. Although kings hired and levied these guild militias, they were treated with suspicion because they tended to usurp the ruler’s power.

The Byzantine Empire of the Middle Ages depended heavily upon the guerrilla tactics of home-guard units to assist in repelling invaders.

In Europe, it was local militias which first confronted the Viking raiders. And it was the English militiamen at the Battle of Hastings who initially broke William the Conqueror’s left wing, though the battle was eventually lost.

In 11th-century China, the expense of maintaining a large standing army against constant threats of invasion drove the emperor to rely instead on conscript militias for border and local security. This allowed him to reduce his standing army by half while increasing the men under arms seven times.

It is, however, the 13th-century English longbowmen, many of whom were yeomen militia, to whom we trace the modern concept of a well-regulated militia. At a time when the rest of Europe was moving from feudal levies to mercenary forces, England and, a little later, France relied heavily upon yeomen militias.

During the 15th century, the French used militia forces to neutralize marauding bands of mercenaries between wars.

It was masses of popular militias which saved Muscovy in 1612 from Polish and Swedish invaders.

Militia forces were used throughout Europe during the Middle Ages as primary defense forces, to complement regular or mercenary troops, and in law-and-order roles. In fact, the rank of private comes from the 16th century, when individuals who provided their own arms and equipment contracted to serve as private soldiers amongst feudal levies.

The early British colonists, imbued with the English distrust for standing military establishments as a threat to civil liberties, incorporated the tradition of the citizen-soldier. In 1636, the first militia unit, the North Regiment of Boston, was formed, followed two years later by the Ancient and Honorable Artillery Company, the oldest American military unit in existence.

One of the first acts of Parliament following the accession of William and Mary to the throne of England as a result of the Glorious Revolution of 1688 was to restore the old constitution with its provision that every man may arm for self-defense.

In 1760, Britain began adopting mercantilist policies toward her American colonies. By 1768, these had produced such hardships and a reversal of the previous prosperity that British troops had to be sent to suppress riots and collect taxes.

Between 1768-1777, the British policy was to disarm the American colonists by whatever means possible, from entrapment, false promises of safekeeping, banning imports, seizure, and eventually shooting persons bearing arms.

By 1774, the British had embargoed shipments of arms to America, and the Americans responded by arming themselves and forming independent militia companies.

On the night of 18 April 1775, General Gage, Governor of Massachusetts, dispatched several hundred soldiers of the Boston garrison under the command of Major Pitcairn to seize the arms and munitions stored by the illegal colonial militias in Concord.

When Pitcairn encountered the Minutemen on the Lexington common blocking his way, he demanded that they throw down their arms and disperse. Although willing to disperse, the Minutemen were not willing to surrender their arms. The rest is history.

Three days after the British retreat from Concord, General Gage refused to allow Bostonians to leave the city without depositing their arms and ammunition with a Selectman at Faneuil Hall, to be returned at a suitable time after their return. When the citizens of Boston foolishly complied, Gage seized the arms and refused to permit their owners to leave the city. (“Declaration of the Causes and Necessity of Taking up Arms,” July 6, 1775.)

The news of Gage’s seizure of the arms of Bostonians not engaged in hostilities and rumors of British troops sailing from England to seize the arms of the colonists swept the colonies.

The colonists considered these actions a violation of their constitutionally guaranteed right to have and use arms for self-preservation and defense, as indeed they were.

In 1777, William Knox, Under Secretary of State for Colonial Affairs, advocated for the American colonies the creation of a ruling aristocracy loyal to the Crown, the establishment of the Church of England, and an unlimited power to tax. To prevent resistance to these measures, Knox proposed disarming all the people:

The Militia Laws should be repealed and none suffered to be re-enacted & the Arms of all the People should be taken away, & every piece of Ordnance removed into the King’s Stores, nor should any Foundry or manufacture of Arms, Gun-powder, or Warlike Stores, be ever suffered in America, nor should any Gunpowder, Lead, Arms or Ordnance be imported into it without License; they will have but little need of such things for the future, as the King’s Troops, Ships & Forts will be sufficient to protect them from danger.

We hear the same argument today. You don’t need arms for your own protection. The police and military will protect you. The question is, who will protect us from the protectors?

Part 1 | Part 2

This is part one of a two-part essay and is based on a speech Mr. LaRosa gave at the Texas Libertarian Party Convention in San Antonio, Texas, on June 9, 1990. Reprinted by permission. For a reprint of this essay in pamphlet form, send $2.00 to Benedict D. LaRosa, 13423 Blanco Road, #181, San Antonio, TX 78216.

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    Benedict LaRosa is a historian and writer with undergraduate and graduate degrees in history from the U.S. Air Force Academy and Duke University, respectively.