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The history of the role of weapons within a society is the history of distribution of power among the individual, the body of citizens and the government and how each perceives of the others. The history of how the three components viewed each other (and themselves) is the history of the means by which access to weapons were distributed.

We can see the role perceptions play in modern America. To the individual isolated by choice or geography and to the person who sees him/herself as a real or potential victim -- of other individuals and/or of the government -- personal access to suitable weapons is perceived of as critical to the individual's survival. To those who find the government more beneficial than threatening and find the greatest threat coming from the stranger or neighbor, one must decide whether the benefit of weapon ownership outweighs the risks. Clearly, those in this latter group with children or who are victims of domestic violence or have family members suffering from depression or addictions find (or should find) individual access to weapons to be far greater risk than benefit.

Views are further complicated by the fact that the gun, as a tool capable of serving a multiplicity of purposes. To the rancher, it is a means of protecting his flocks and herds against four-legged predators, as well as a means of obtaining sustenance through hunting. But that same tool, in the hands of an eleven year old boy on a wooded hill, looking down on his classmates and teachers in a schoolyard, is a weapon of destruction and violence. More generally, weapons can be used to maintain order or to create chaos.

Finally, as the structures of a society and its traditions evolve, risks and the perceptions of risk change. Simply, our founding fathers saw in the militia the force used to protect the society. Formed as the posse commitatus, it was the police force before we had police departments. Formed as the militia, it was defense force of the community against external threats and it was the means by which the larger society could defend itself, without giving a distant (by it London or the national capitol) government the means to impose a tyranny on the populace. But, over time, we developed the idea of professional law enforcement officers and the standing army has evolved from the lowly mercenaries whose allegiance could be purchased for several pieces of silver to the patriotic citizens ready to lay down their lives for the protection of the nation.

The customs and laws which reflect these (and other) changes have changed as well. It is the goal of the History and the Law section of Sane Guns to explore these changes and the shifting views of the obligations, responsibilities, privileges, and rights regarding weapons for two purposes:

  1. only by understanding the relationship between the perceptions of the appropriate place for weapons and the perceptions of the society, itself, can we establish a meaningful framework for discussing and establishing suitable weapon controls for this society, and
  2. only by understanding that perceptions of society have changed over time, bringing changes in the perceptions of the appropriate place for weapons, can we understand that appropriate place for weapons at one point in history is unlikely to do more than provide the most general guide for their place today.


©Copyright, 2000, Mike Rosenberg