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For example: a cannon, certain types of muskets etc...

Were there laws for whether women or freed slaves could not own specific weapons?

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    I'm not sure that slaves were considered citizens at the time, so would you rather have us focus on individual groups of people, or on citizens as a whole? Commented Dec 21, 2012 at 1:20
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    I recently got into this discussion and a friend of mine noted that some cannon at the time were privately owned, though I have not looked into it deeper. Not sure about other weapons, though considering we were still a frontier/colony/country its doubtful there were laws regarding who owned what.
    – MichaelF
    Commented Dec 21, 2012 at 11:54
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    I'd certainly believe cannons were privately owned. Honestly, it seems like a modern assult rifle or a modern colt 45 would be a more dangerous weapon than a canon. The point being the model of owning anything in 1789 is not the same as in 2013
    – timpone
    Commented Dec 22, 2012 at 22:13
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    I don't know about federal law under the Articles of Confederation, but in the colonies before 1776, a person typically could not legally own any weapons if that person was a slave or an Indian. These laws were closely modeled on the English laws that forbid Catholics from owning arms, and that were motivated by fears that Catholics would stockpile arms and rise up. England also had restrictions on handguns and crossbows, whichcould be concealed, and were often used by highwaymen. Guns a full yard long were OK. Arms were associated with compulsory militia service, which was for men 16-60.
    – user2848
    Commented Sep 17, 2016 at 19:27
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    Privateers were privately owned ships that were given permission to attack enemy ships during a time of war. They were armed with cannons. By simple logic, private ownership of cannons was legal. Commented Apr 8, 2021 at 19:44

3 Answers 3

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Short answer - There were no federal legal prohibitions against weapon ownership in 1789.

Long answer. During that year the "United States" had at least 14 governments. For the first two months of the year, the territory was governed by the Articles of Confederation. I haven't reviewed all of the legal precedents under the AoC, but I'm willing to bet my collection of Stack Exchange Hats that AoC had no restrictions on gun ownership. Philosophically, that was an issue that would have been reserved for the states. For the last ten months of the year, the United States was governed by the Constitution. A quick review of the legislation passed that term, indicates that they didn't touch weapons laws. (they hadn't even passed the 2nd amendment yet). Furthermore since the clear intent of the drafters of the constitution was to avoid specifying negative rights, the absence of any mention of weapons, then there were no restrictions on weapon ownership.

But I said 14 governments, and I've only touched two. The other 12 were the state governments (Rhode Island didn't ratify the constitution till later). State laws may have restricted weapon ownership.

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  • Add the word "Federal" (or something of that sense) to your first sentence, and this may be good enough for an upvote. It is only very late that you mention state laws, but without look at those, this can only really be half the answer.
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Dec 21, 2012 at 14:55
  • One other state ratified late, so the number may be 13
    – MCW
    Commented Dec 21, 2012 at 14:56
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In a word: no. It was quite legal for private citizens to own, for their private use, any manner of weapons with which a vessel might be equipped to engage in maritime raiding and piracy privateering. During both the War of Independence and War of 1812 the U.S. relied heavily on the efforts and resources, both monetary and other, of private citizens for the pursuit of its naval war.

In both the War of Independence and War of 1812, the Congress authorized the granting of letters of marque to private citizens: commissioning them to operate their privately owned and outfitted naval vessels as maritime raiders; for a profit.

The only restrictions on these that I can find are:

  • U.S. Constuitution Art I, § 8, clause 11:

    *The Congress shall have power …; To grant letters of marque and reprisal, and make rules concerning captures on land and water;

  • U.S. Constitution Art I, § 10, clause 1:

    No state shall …; grant letters of marque and reprisal; …

  • Procedure:

    • during War of Independence:

      During the American Revolution the Continental Congress adopted a printed form with blank spaces for the name of the vessel, owners and master, and figures for tonnage, guns an crew. These blank commissions, signed by the President of Congress, were sent out to the United Colonies, who assumed primary responsibility for the regulation and conduct of their own privateer fleets.

    • during War of 1812:

      By 1812 a shipowner applied in writing tho the Collector, or in some cases directly to the State Department. If approved, he would then sign a bond, usually for a sum ranging between $5,000 and $10,000 (depending upon the size of his vessel or crew) to insure his ship’s compliance with the conditions of the Letter of Marque or Privateer Commission. The document itself, containing the signatures of the President and the Secretary of State, was then issued to the shipowner through the Customs Service, and remained valid until recalled by the government or canceled through a violation of the bond.

In all cases it must be emphasized that the letter of marque was not a license to own all manner of weapons with which a privateering vessel might be equipped, including not only muskets but 32lb cannon and 64lb carronades, cutlasses, etc. – as the vessel must have been fully outfitted prior to applying for such – but to sail the high seas and privateer against the nation's naval foes.

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  • I find it amazing that 'private ownership of top notch military cannons' was not just a theoretical legal possibility. I wonder if similar examples exist for land warfare - Although I do not imagine somebody mounting a cannon to defend his farm, is it possible that some regiments might have been equipped with privately owned cannons?
    – Luiz
    Commented Jun 3, 2022 at 14:02
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    @Luiz I know many, if not all, gatling guns used in the Civil War were privately purchased by commanders who wanted to give them to their unit. I believe a similar thing happened with lever-action rifles.
    – Ryan_L
    Commented Jun 3, 2022 at 16:22
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Second Amendment: "A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed."

In early post colonial US there was very little "Federal" law. It was mostly local (town or county) or State law. There also was no real federal "Standing Army" until the Civil War. The only military weaponry of that day were canons, and by association, large stores of Black Powder. Many local jurisdictions prohibited civilians from possessing, in their homes, canons or large stores of black powder. In Marblehead MA there was a town based "Powder House' outside the Village where the local militia had to store it's black powder, and then transport it to the fort that guarded the entrance to the harbor. While this has little to do with restricting the ownership of weapons, but more likely implemented as a safety measure to prevent the town being leveled by an unintentional or intentional detonation of the gun powder stores.
The framers of of Constitution and the Bill of Rights (3 were from Marblehead MA) were also the same local leaders who enacted these local prohibitions against civilians possessing this military weaponry. It is hard to imagine Eldridge Geary or General John Glover approving of every Tom, Dick and Harry possessing the weapons of mass killing that an assault rifle with a 30 round magazine represents.

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    Your last sentence doesn't jibe with your first; if you want your state to have a militia with a chance of defeating an invader, they need weapons roughly comparable to (or better than) the invader will have. In a modern war, this will be an assault rifle with large magazines. Anybody who had a musket would also have powder and shot for at least a little while - some towns had laws specifying a minimum amount! Note that the law regarding cannons might not have been to keep civilians from having them so much as keeping the town safe from accidents, especially fire. Commented Sep 18, 2016 at 7:12
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    The restrictions on storing large amounts of explosives in towns was not a restriction on owning the explosives, but rather a safety precaution because they didn't want an accidental explosion of a storage facility (which happened with some frequency, explosives at the time were far less stable than they are today) from destroying half the town and causing large loss of life and property.
    – jwenting
    Commented Sep 19, 2016 at 7:14
  • muskets, did they already use cartridges with bullet + power in 1789? If the bullets are separated from powder, then a 'large store of black powder' is necessary also for any infantry unit, not only for cannons. But nobody would allow his neighbor to store a 'large store of black powder' as it might 'go boom' anytime. So, using this as an argument against gun ownership is completely bogus.
    – Luiz
    Commented Mar 2, 2018 at 19:22
  • @Luiz No, they did not use cartridges. While it is possible that cartridges had been invented, they were certainly not in common use -- even in the Napoleonic Wars a generation later muzzle loaders were the standard infantry weapon.
    – Mark Olson
    Commented Apr 8, 2021 at 20:04

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