Editor’s note: This three-part series will explore the history of gun control in the United States. Part 1 will discuss gun restrictions during the 17th and 18th centuries.

Gun control in America isn’t a modern issue. In fact, gun restrictions date back more than 300 years, even before the United States existed as an independent nation. Some of the early laws in the American colonies might seem peculiar to us today, while others still resonate in current debates.

Prohibited Persons

The earliest gun regulations targeted specific individuals, aiming to restrict dangerous persons from owning firearms. These regulations also involved discrimination based on religious, racial and political reasons.

In 1756, Maryland introduced a law that restricted Catholics from owning guns. The law ordered the confiscation of “all Arms Gunpowder and Ammunition of what kind soever any Papist or reputed Papist within this Providence hath or shall have in his House or Houses.”

Some early gun laws disarmed African Americans, both slaves and free individuals. For instance, in 1715, Maryland prohibited slaves from “carry[ing] any guns, or any other offensive weapon, from off their master’s land, without license from their said master.” In 1742, Pennsylvania enacted a law that prohibited slaves in Philadelphia from carrying any weapons without the permission of their masters.

Pennsylvania oath of allegiance. (Heritage Auctions, HA.com)

Pennsylvania oath of allegiance. (Heritage Auctions, HA.com)

During the American Revolution, the Continental Congress passed a resolution recommending the confiscation of guns from individuals “who are notoriously disaffected to the cause of America, or who have not associated, & refuse to associate, to defend by Arms, the United Colonies against the Hostile attempts of the British Fleets & Armies.” Neighborhoods were disarmed, and those who refused to surrender their guns to the local militia faced fines. At the state level, Pennsylvanians over 18 years old were required to take oath of allegiance, and those who refused were disarmed.

Weapons Restrictions and ‘Ammo’ Limits

Certain weapons or amounts of gunpowder were considered dangerous to carry or transport and were subject to restrictions.

In 1686, New Jersey enacted a law against wearing “swords, daggers, pistols, dirks, stilettoes, skeines, or any other unusual or unlawful weapons.” Complaints from New Jerseyans in the colony highlighted instances of abuse, challenges and intimidation by individuals carrying these weapons.

The colony also restricted gun traps in 1771. Setting any loaded gun “intended to go off or discharge itself, or be discharged by any string, rope or other contrivance” resulted in fines. Failure to pay the fine would lead to a six-month prison sentence.

Revolutionary War powder horn. (Heritage Auctions, HA.com)

Revolutionary War powder horn. (Heritage Auctions, HA.com)

In 1792, Massachusetts passed a regulation against transporting and storing gunpowder in Boston exceeding 25 pounds, unless supervised by the Board of Firewards (predecessor of the Boston Fire Department).

Location-Based Restrictions

Most location-based restrictions determined where individuals could discharge firearms.

Massachusetts passed a law in 1697 prohibiting the shooting of guns during evening hours in any town or garrison “unless in case of an alarm, approach of the enemy, or other necessary defence.”

Offenders would face fines or be placed in the stocks, a device used to restrain a person’s feet, for up to two hours. This form of punishment aimed to publicly humiliate the offender.

In 1713, Massachusetts also restricted Bostonians from firing a gun on Boston Neck within 10 rods (55 yards) of the road and highway. Boston Neck was a narrow strip of land that served as the only access point to Boston from the mainland. A gate and guardhouse were strategically placed there to protect the city from attacks. Due to geographical changes resulting from reclamation projects, Boston Neck no longer exists.

In 1746, any person who discharged a gun or pistol in Boston or any part of the harbor between Castle William (renamed Fort Independence) and the city would be fined 40 shillings for each gun or pistol fired. Justices of the peace for Suffolk County would also confiscate the weapons. Failure to pay the fine or surrender the firearm to the authorities would result in a 10-day imprisonment.

Other Firearms Regulations

In 1721, the provisional governor of Pennsylvania, Sir William Keith, enacted a game law that restricted hunting from July to January. Those who hunted outside these months faced a fine of 20 shillings. Native Americans were exempt from this law. In 1749, the hunting months changed to August to December, and the fine doubled. It was also illegal to hunt deer on Sundays unless under “cases of necessity.”

Massachusetts prohibited dueling in 1728. Anyone engaging in a duel with a “rapier or small-sword, backsword, pistol, or any other dangerous weapon” would be transported in a cart to the gallows with a rope placed around his neck and forced to sit there for one hour. Afterward, he would be imprisoned for 12 months.

In 1779, Vermont passed an act stating that every militiaman or head of a household must have a firelock with a barrel no less than 3 1/2 feet, or another suitable firearm, a sword, cutlass, tomahawk or bayonet, a worm and priming wire, a cartridge box or powder and bullet pouch, 1 pound of powder, 4 pounds of bullets, and six good flints on hand. Failure to comply would result in a fine of 18 shillings.

Gun Control Is Old News

These are hardly all the gun laws passed in America during the 17th and 18th centuries, but they represent the most common ones. Scholars and non-scholars on both sides of the gun debate have used these laws to support their arguments or critique their opponents. One undeniable fact is that gun laws have existed since the beginning. Americans have been debating them for just as long.

Editor’s note. Part 2 discusses gun restrictions during the 19th century.

The feature image is from the Library of Congress.

Further Reading

Cornell, Saul, and Nathan DeDino. “A Well Regulated Right: The Early American Origins of Gun Control.” Fordham Law Review 73, no. 2 (2004): 487-528.

Flick, Alexander C. Loyalism in New York During the American Revolution. New York: Columbia University Press, 1901.

Frassetto, Mark. Firearms and Weapons Legislation up to the Early 20th Century. January 15, 2013. https://ssrn.com/abstract=2200991.

Griffin, Martin I. J. “Religious Liberty for Protestants and Toleration for Catholics in Maryland — Liberty for All in Pennsylvania.” The American Catholic Historical Researchers 5, no. 1 (January 1909): 13-15.

Kosack, John. The Pennsylvania Game Commission, 1895-1995: 100 Years of Wildlife Conservation. Harrisburg: The Pennsylvania Game Commission, 1995.

Laws of the State of New-Jersey. Revised and Published Under the Authority of the Legislature. Trenton: Printed for the State by Joseph Justice, 1821.

Leaming, Aaron, and Jacob Spicer. The Grants, Concessions, and Original Constitutions of the Province of New Jersey. Union: The Lawbook Exchange, Ltd., 2022.

Mitchell, James T., and Henry Flanders, eds. The Statutes at Large of Pennsylvania from 1682 to 1801. Vol. 9, 1776 to 1779. Harrisburg: Wm. Stanley Ray, State Printers of Pennsylvania, 1903.

Spitzer, Robert J. “Gun Law History in the United States and Second Amendment Rights.” Law and Contemporary Problems 80, no. 2 (2017): 55-83.

The Acts and Resolves, Public and Private, of the Province of the Massachusetts Bay: To Which Are Prefixed the Charters of the Province, With Historical and Explanatory Notes, and an Appendix. Vol. 1. Boston: Wright & Potter, Printers to the State, 1869.

The Acts and Resolves, Public and Private, of the Province of the Massachusetts Bay: To Which Are Prefixed the Charters of the Province, With Historical and Explanatory Notes, and an Appendix. Vol. 3. Boston: Printed for the Commonwealth by Albert J. Wright, 1878.

The Charter Granted by Their Majesties King William and Queen Mary, to the Inhabitants of the Province of the Massachusetts-Bay in New-England. Boston: Printed by S. Kneeland, by Order of His Excellency the Governor, Council and House of Representatives, 1759.

The Charters of the Province of Pensilvania and City of Philadelphia. Philadelphia: Printed and Sold by B. Franklin, 1742.