Empire of Guns: Arming the American Gun Debate with Insights from the History of the British Gun Trade

Priya Satia
Edwin W. Cooper of Beccles, A Sportsman with Shooting Pony and Gun Dogs (1815), via Wikimedia Commons.

Edwin W. Cooper of Beccles, A Sportsman with Shooting Pony and Gun Dogs (1815), via Wikimedia Commons.

Today’s gun debate is hampered by pervasive misinformation about the history of guns and gun regulations in America. Gun manufacturers and their lobby organization promote new, expansive interpretations of the Second Amendment that imply any call for regulation of guns is un-American. As students take the lead in challenging these forces, historians can arm them and the wider public with a more accurate understanding of the place of guns and gun controls in the American past and can help frame the debate about how much that past should shape our present.

Although my book Empire of Guns focuses on the gun industry’s role in Britain’s eighteenth-century transformations, it describes the wider world in which early American gun culture and regulations took shape. Historians might draw on it in several ways to engage with our current debates.

First, to nurture a skeptical attitude toward mythologies about guns in America, we might encourage imaginative engagement with the changing meaning and uses of technologies, including guns, over time. Understanding the context of gun use in which the Second Amendment was written in 1791 will enable us to make informed judgments about what it was really about and how relevant it should be to our current debates.

Empire of Guns shows that in the eighteenth century, guns and gun parts were not only weapons but important commodities and even, at times, currencies, because of their intrinsic value as metal objects. They were critical items of trade all over the world, including North America, and their symbolic and actual power often opened up markets to British trade. As weapons, their uses were shaped by their material nature and the cultural context. In Britain, guns were rarely used in crimes of passion or by rioters—though they were used to put down riots. In this time before formal policing, they were primarily used in contests around property—the soul of eighteenth-century British life. In such contests, they were the weapon waved in the face of strangers, unpredictable in their effect and thus useful as instruments of terror wielded at a polite distance. These uses were a product of many factors, but not least was the unwieldy, slow, perishable, and unreliable nature of eighteenth-century firearms.

American colonists were part of this British cultural world. Settlers setting out for North America went armed. Gun ownership rates were generally higher in the American colonies than in Britain, but most colonists did not have military-grade arms. They, too, used guns in conflicts around property—including the larger scale struggle for native lands. Americans also used guns for pest control and hunting. Guns were part of the culture of the frontier—carried by exploring parties as weapons (ostensibly for defense, but often used offensively), but also fired to signal for help or announce a welcome or triumph. Europeans also brought arms to North America as gifts to Native American powers, as well as a currency and object of trade. Gun sales were part of the European contest for the allegiance of Native nations.

This eighteenth-century culture of gun use was radically different from American use of guns today. Today, many American civilians do own military-style firearms. Firearms technology and culture both have evolved, and today, we do use guns in crimes of passion, especially domestic violence. We also use them in new kinds of casual mass violence. This is an important anthropological shift that ought to shape our references to the Second Amendment in our current debates about guns. For instance, how should we interpret the amendment’s reference to “Arms” in the phrase “the right of the people to keep and bear Arms.” Does it refer to firearms? If so, what kind of firearms—our firearms today, even if they have radically different uses and meaning from firearms in 1791? Some argue that if the First Amendment protects modern forms of communication, so the Second Amendment must also protect modern arms—but this analogy falls apart if we find that the function of modern arms is fundamentally different from that of earlier arms. (Moreover, courts are currently grappling with just how to apply the First Amendment to new platforms.)

Typically, as technologies evolve, shifting culture, we introduce new laws to regulate their use. Cars did not exist in the eighteenth century; the Constitution can offer no guidance about how we use them. So, we invented new laws to regulate them, in the cause of public safety. As telephone technology has evolved from the device Alexander Graham Bell invented to today’s iPhone, which fits into our lives in dramatically different ways, new regulations and social conventions have emerged to govern its uses. Today’s firearms are only nominally the same objects as the firearms available in 1791, and likewise require new regulations. We have already implicitly agreed that the Second Amendment does not apply to “arms” such as tanks, nuclear bombs, bazookas, and missiles. It is up to us to decide where we draw the line between arms to which the people have a right and arms to which they do not.

Brown Bess, by Wilfried Wittkowsky.  CC-BY-SA-3.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

Brown Bess, by Wilfried Wittkowsky. CC-BY-SA-3.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

Second, historians can draw on the British imperial story to understand the structural forces that have made the American civilian market so essential to the global gun industry today. The British government closely nurtured the British gun industry, an industry considered essential to the security of the realm. Insofar as the cash-strapped government was typically in debt to its contractors, gun  makers were also important creditors to the state. The structural problem for gun makers is their need for other markets when contracts dwindle. Widespread gun ownership within Britain was considered politically risky during a time of frequent rebellion against the new monarchy established in 1689, but the government helped gun makers sell their wares abroad instead, especially through its corporate partners, such as the East India Company and the Hudson’s Bay Company. The East India Company also needed vast numbers for its growing army in South Asia. Those involved in the transatlantic slave trade were also crucial sources of custom. Concerns about arming Britain’s enemies with British guns were answered with the logic that abstaining from such sales would only forfeit profit and prestige to the French or other rivals. When powerful anticolonial movements threatened British power by the late nineteenth century, the arms the British had so liberally allowed to spread around the world appeared dangerous in a new way. The tight controls on gun ownership the British consequently passed in India, New Zealand, and South Africa were perhaps precisely the “tyranny” that Americans felt the Second Amendment preserved them from; but, in all of these cases, the controls were racialized. British gun makers certainly complained about the new controls, but they became easier to ignore as the British government itself grew more reliant on firearms manufactured abroad in the twentieth century. Strict gun-control regulations in Britain itself after mass shootings in 1987 and 1996 were eased by the absence of a powerful gun-makers’ lobby within the country by that time.

The U.S. government learned some things from the historical partnership between gun makers and government in Britain. Understanding the origins of such partnerships can help us make sense of the dynamics that continue to shape the politics around regulation of firearms sales in the U.S. and abroad. Indeed, this is a global story: As gun controls tighten around the world, loose controls in the United States have become even more important to the world’s firearms manufacturers. The American civilian market is the single biggest market for firearms sales today. An understanding of governments’, gun manufacturers’, and other industries’ interest in gun proliferation should inform the gun-control movement’s tactical approach.

The movement will also benefit from a clear grasp of how centrally arms-making has figured in the formation of the major institutions of modern life. The need to provide mass numbers of weapons for large armies drove the creation of both modern state institutions and the world’s first industrial economy in Britain. Arms manufacturing remains central to government and economy today. The challenge gun-control activists face is how to eliminate firearms from daily life when so much of our economic and financial prosperity and the security of governments around the world depend on the continued availability of firearms to ordinary Americans. Is it possible to redirect firearms manufacturers toward producing something else? Eighteenth-century gun makers often diversified into other products to cope with whimsical government demand; perhaps that mode of risk management might be productively revived.

Finally, my book can help historians challenge erroneous claims about the absence of common-law and early American regulation of gun control, which has become essential to gun debates since the dramatic shift in interpretation of the Second Amendment in the Supreme Court’s 2008 decision, District of Columbia v. Heller. That decision determined that sufficiently “long-standing” firearms regulations are constitutional. This means that we have to get the history of eighteenth-century British gun regulation right. This is ironic, of course, given that the United States emerged from a rejection of British governance, with the Second Amendment itself often understood as an insurance policy against reversion to tyrannical rule. But in severing the bond with Britain, the United States did not discard the common-law tradition; the Constitution was written in the language of common law. In any case, Heller sweeps the logic of geopolitical history aside as it calls on us to rummage in the British past for evidence of long-standing firearms regulations—however absurd that may seem. My book confirms that gun ownership was indeed regulated in Britain in the eighteenth century, and that regulations reflected the particular material form and functioning of guns in that time.

It is always challenging to think of how best to bring scholarship to bear on contemporary politics. Besides producing scholarship that pushes back against myths and misinformation, historians might write for and speak to the public; work with organizations working for gun control; inform local governments and agencies offering contracts for guns; and, of course, join the activist forces on the streets. This is not a matter of politicizing history or spreading “bias” or “prejudice” against guns; it is a matter of acknowledging and spreading awareness that the historical record is in fact on the side of gun regulation.

9 July 2018

About the Author

Priya Satia is Professor of Modern British History at Stanford University.

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