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How the British Gun Control Program Precipitated the American Revolution

Guest post by TJ Martinell, a blogger and researcher for the Tenth Amendment Center and Used with permission.

When people think of the causes of the American War for Independence, they think of slogans like “no taxation without representation” or cause célèbre like the Boston Tea Party.

In reality, however, what finally forced the colonials into a shooting war with the British Army in April 1775 was not taxes or even warrant-less searches of homes and their occupation by soldiers, but one of many attempts by the British to disarm Americans as part of an overall gun control program, according to David B. Kopel.

Furthermore, had the American colonies lost their war for independence, the British government intended to strip them of all their guns and place them under the thumb of a permanent standing army.

In his paper titled “How the British Gun Control Program Precipitated the American Revolution,” Kopel claims that various gun control policies by the British following the Boston Tea Party, including a ban on firearm and gunpowder importation, tells us not only the purpose of the Second Amendment, but its relevance within the context of today’s gun control debate.

Researcher and attorney David B. Kopel writes that various gun control policies by the British following the Boston Tea Party included a ban on firearm and gunpowder importation—similar to gun-control efforts of today. Image courtesy of the Tenth Amendment Center.

“The ideology underlying all forms of American resistance to British usurpations and infringements was explicitly premised on the right of self-defense of all inalienable rights,” Kopel writes. “From the self-defense foundation was constructed a political theory in which the people were the masters and government the servant, so that the people have the right to remove a disobedient servant. The philosophy was not novel, but was directly derived from political and legal philosophers such as John Locke, Hugo Grotius, and Edward Coke.”

Kopel writes that two important things underlined the American response to the British policies. One was the practical concept of self-defense, which British disarmament measures was making more difficult. The other, and more relevant concept, was that “Americans made no distinction between self-defense against a lone criminal or against a criminal government.”

Following the Boston Tea Party in December 1773, in which the Sons of Liberty boarded three ships carrying East India Company cargo and dumped forty-six tons of tea ships of tea to prevent its landing, the British government introduced a series of retaliatory measures known as the Intolerable Acts. Among the actions was the closure of Boston’s port, effectively cutting off all trade.

However, Kopel writes, “it was the possibility that the British might deploy the army to enforce them (the Intolerable Acts) that primed many colonists for armed resistance.”

An example of this is a South Carolina newspaper essay, reprinted in Virginia that urged that any law that had to be enforced by the military was necessarily illegitimate.

“When an Army is sent to enforce Laws, it is always an Evidence that either the Law makers are conscious that they had no clear and indisputable right to make those Laws, or that they are bad [and] oppressive. Wherever the People themselves have had a hand in making Laws, according to the first principles of our Constitution there is no danger of Nonsubmission, Nor can there be need of an Army to enforce them.”

The British Army had already been occupying American cities like Boston since 1768, where the notorious Boston Massacre took place in 1770. Following the passage of the intolerable Acts, the Massachusetts Government Act dissolved the provincial government in the state, and General Thomas Gage was appointed royal governor, all which inflamed tensions and prompted backlash from Americans who saw it as the Crown attempted to force their colonies into submission.

Tensions were so great, in fact, that the shooting might have started much earlier than Lexington and Concord. In one incident, General Gage sent Redcoats to squash an “illegal” town meeting in Salem, only to retreat when, according to one of Gage’s aides, three thousand armed Americans arrived.

It was clear to the British that gun control measures would be necessary if they were to maintain their rule. Gage had only 2,000 troops in Boston, while there were thousands of armed men in Boston and more in the surrounding area.

One solution, Kopel writes, was to deprive the Americans of gunpowder. In September 1774, several hundred Redcoats raided a Charlestown powder house—where militias and merchants stored their gunpowder due to its volatile nature—and seized all but the powder belonging to the colonial government.

“Gage was within his legal rights to seize it,” Kopel concludes. “But the seizure still incensed the public.”

Known as the Powder Alarm, this also nearly started the Revolution when rumors spread wildly that the Redcoats had started shooting. In response, 20,000 militiamen were mobilized that same day and marched on Boston—they later turned around once they learned the truth.

Still, Kopel writes, the message was clear:

“If the British used violence to seize arms or powder, the Americans would treat that seizure as an act of war, and the militia would fight,” he writes. “And that is exactly what happened several months later, on April 19, 1775.”

Following the Powder Alarm, the militia of the towns of Worcester County assembled at the Worcester Common, where the Worcester Convention ordered the resignations of all militia officers who had received their commissions from the royal governor. The officers promptly resigned, and then received new commissions from the Worcester Convention, independent of the British administration.

Governor Gage then tried another approach—warrantless searches of people for arms and ammunition without any provocation. The policy drew fierce criticism from the colonists. In fact, the Boston Gazette wrote that of all General Gage‘s offenses, it was this one that outraged people the most.

In October 1774, the Provincial Congress convened, with John Hancock acting as its president. The Congress adopted a resolution that condemned the military occupation of Boston and called on private citizens to arm themselves and engage in military drills. The Provincial Congress also appointed a Committee of Safety, giving it the power to call up the militia. This meant that the militia of Massachusetts “no longer answered to the British government,” Kopel writes. “It was now the instrument of what was becoming an independent government of Massachusetts.”

Not surprisingly, British officials in England were eager to see outright gun confiscation in order to effectively suppress any resistance to their rule. Lord Dartmouth, the royal Secretary of State for America, articulated this sentiment in a letter to Governor Gage.

“Amongst other things which have occurred on the present occasion as likely to prevent the fatal consequence of having recourse to the sword, that of disarming the Inhabitants of the Massachusetts Bay, Connecticut and Rhode Island, has been suggested. Whether such a Measure was ever practicable, or whether it can be attempted in the present state of things you must be the best judge; but it certainly is a Measure of such a nature as ought not to be adopted without almost a certainty of success, and therefore I only throw it out for your consideration.”

Gage warned that the only way to carry it out would be to use violence:

“Your Lordship‘s Idea of disarming certain Provinces would doubtless be consistent with Prudence and Safety, but it neither is nor has been practicable without having Recourse to Force, and being Masters of the Country.”

The gun confiscation proposal didn’t remain secret for long, as Gage‘s letter read in the British House of Commons and then publicized in America. Two days after Dartmouth’s letter was sent, King George III ordered the blocked importation of arms and ammunition to America, save those with governments permits. No permit, Kopel writes, was ever granted, and the ban would remain in effect until after the War of Independence ended and the Treaty of Paris was signed in 1783.

Having banned the import on all guns and ammunition, the British moved next to seize that which remained in colonial hands. In anticipation of such a seizure at Fort William and Mary in December 1774, four hundred New Hampshire patriots preemptively captured all the material at the fort.

Eventually, Kopel writes, “Americans no longer recognized the royal governors as the legitimate commanders-in-chief of the militia. So without formal legal authorization, Americans began to form independent militia, outside the traditional chain of command of the royal governors.”

It was such a militia that assembled at the Lexington Green and the Concord against Gage’s Redcoats in April 1775. Following the battle, the colonials lay siege to Boston. The British response in other colonies was a swift move to confiscate or destroy firearms. In Virginia, they seized twenty barrels of gunpowder from the public magazine in Williamsburg and removed the firing mechanisms in the guns, making them impossible to shoot.

Meanwhile, in Boston, General Gage carried out his own gun confiscation policy against the remaining Bostonians, but having learned his lesson from Lexington and Concord, he tried a more furtive approach by offering them the opportunity to leave town if they gave up their arms. Within days, Kopel writes, 2,674 guns were handed over to the British. Gage then promptly turned back on his promise and initially refused to allow anyone to leave. Only food shortages led him to permit more emigration from the city.

Although there is room for speculation as to what would have happened had the American colonies lost the War of Independence, historical documents make some things very clear. When a British victory seemed likely in 1777, Colonial Undersecretary William Knox drafted a plan titled “What Is Fit to Be Done with America?” Intended to prevent any further rebellions in America, the plan called on the establishment of the Church of England in all the colonies, along with a hereditary aristocracy.

The Powder House is located near the northern edge of this detail from a 1775 map of the Siege of Boston. It’s called a “Magazine.” Image courtesy of the the Tenth Amendment Center.
The Powder House is located near the northern edge of this detail from a 1775 map of the Siege of Boston. It’s called a “Magazine.” Image courtesy of the Tenth Amendment Center.

But the most ominous measure it would have enacted would have been a permanent standing army, along with the following:

The Militia Laws should be repealed and none suffered to be re-enacted, [and] the Arms of all the People should be taken away . . . nor should any Foundery or manufactuary of Arms, Gunpowder, or Warlike Stores, be ever suffered in America, nor should any Gunpowder, Lead, Arms or Ordnance be imported into it without Licence . . .”

Many gun control policies in America today follow the British blueprint. The federal Gun Control Act of 1968, for example, prohibits the import of any firearm that is not deemed suitable for “sporting” purposes by federal regulators. Certain cities openly declare their gun fees are intended not to prevent the wrong people from owning guns, but to discourage all private citizens from owning them.

“To the Americans of the Revolution and the Founding Era,” Kopel writes, “the late twentieth century claim that the Second Amendment is a collective right and not an individual right might have seemed incomprehensible. The Americans owned guns individually, in their homes. They owned guns collectively, in their town armories and powder houses. They would not allow the British to confiscate their individual arms, or their collective arms; and when the British tried to do both, the Revolution began.”

Yet, Kopel believes “the most important lesson for today from the Revolution is about militaristic or violent search and seizure in the name of disarmament,” something that occurred in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Local law enforcement confiscated firearms, many times at gunpoint. A federal district judge properly issued an order finding the gun confiscation to be illegal.

“Gun ownership simply ought never be a pretext for government violence,” Kopel concludes. “The Americans in 1775 fought a war because the king did not agree. Americans of the twenty-first century should not squander the heritage of constitutional liberty bequeathed by the Patriots.”

It is easy to see, then, why modern gun control advocates are the spiritual successors of the British government our forefathers opposed, for while gun grabbers call for restrictions on the right of private citizens to keep and bear arms, they are all but silent on the dangers of having standing army in America or the blatant militarization of police departments.

Their reason for disarming American citizens today is the same as that of the British in the 1770s.

This item originally appeared on the Tenth Amendment Center’s blog. Click here to see the original. The Tenth Amendment Center teaches people about the original meaning of the Constitution and leads grassroots coalitions to use nullification as a means to block federal overreach, including 2nd Amendment infringements.

The Mission of Cheaper Than Dirt!'s blog, The Shooter's Log, is to provide information—not opinions—to our customers and the shooting community. We want you, our readers, to be able to make informed decisions. The information provided here does not represent the views of Cheaper Than Dirt!

Comments (38)

  1. As the world becomes a more dangerous place, more governments being to fear their own citizen and sometimes, rightly so. They (governments) take land and rights away from people without due process. They impose poverty creating taxation. Is it any wonder that they take away weapons too? Remember; ‘An armed man is a citizen, an unarmed man is a subject’. More and more countries want subjects rather than citizens. Love the U.S.A. but hate the present administration. Will stay expatriated in a country that still wants citizens until something changes.

    1. Kevin, right now it is Uruguay, but it could well be Paraguay or Guatamala.
      You can import weapons into each of these countries. Uruguay, will hold your weapon until you establish residency, ie; apartment, mailing address, state ID, I have. Paraguay, no restrictions, just a one time fee for a carry license, Guatamala, licensing fee for the weapon, about $25 US Dollars, carry permit, once you have proven that you can handle a weapon without endangering yourself and others, about $50 US Dollars. This gets you unrestricted right to carry. You don’t even have to establish residency. Even short time visitors to Guatamala can do this. There are probably other S.A. that have similar laws, but I haven’t done the research. In each of these, armed ‘citizens’ are not discouraged, nor is there any restriction on the number of weapons or ammo that you can own. These countries’ governments aren’t afraid of their armed citizenry.

    2. Hi Roy,
      thank you for this fantastic piece of information. I had no idea that any S.A countries were this weapon friendly. How did you find the immigration process? Was it pretty easy? Were you required to find work etc?
      Again thank you for this excellent piece of information.

    3. Kevin, not all S.A. countries are ‘gun friendly’, Mexico being the closest.
      While you can on a weapon their, they are very restrictive in caliber and type ,ie; only one and it cannot be what they consider ‘military caliber’. No .223s, no 9 mm., no .357.
      Immigration policies vary with country. Some have an minimum income to immigrate. Some require that you have investments in country. All require work a work visa to become employed, but none require you to work, if you have sufficient income so as not to become a burden on them. Paraguay was fairly simple, apply for immigration, they have several, mine was as a retiree, I am pushing 70 real hard. It takes about a year for citizenship status. This also varies by country, some take as long as 5 years some as little as 6 months. If you plan on immigration, check you prospective countries laws on line.
      As for me, I’m a drifter, in-time, I will get tired of being in one place and move, probably to Uruguay or Guatemala.

    4. So you would rather run away than stand & fight, with your guns if necessary? Is that what I’m understanding from you Roy? I hope not, but if so, are you already living over there in one of those 3rd world countries? If so, stay & never come back. If not, take a stand, or get out! We do not need People like you in the US. We want freedom loving Patriots that will not allow the fascist, run amok socialistic bureaucracies to continue to trample on our rights & liberties. The article above clearly illustrates what Patriots do. They stand & fight. Which is why I continue to advocate that gun rights organizations start lobbying the states to have their governors start regulating the militia. One of the duties of the militia is to enforce the laws, (not the statutes, codes & regulations), of the government. Many of which are direct infringement of our rights. Let us not forget the first part of the 2nd Amendment; “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State…”. I can not emphasize “NECESSARY TO THE SECURITY OF A FREE STATE” enough. If we are losing our rights it is a direct result of not having a well regulated militia. I’m not talking about a bunch of well organized guys that have banded together & call themselves a militia. I’m talking about a bonafide lawful assemblage, regulated by yet independent of, it’s respective state government. This was our founders way of guaranteeing us from having a tyrannical government hell bent on enslaving it’s populace. The outcry of gun rights People should not be “You can have my guns when you pry them from my cold dead hands” It should be a call to arms and a march on the government that is trying to trample on our rights & liberties. When the least of us is unjustly beaten up by cops & falsely accused of a crime the militia should be rising up to keep the unconstitutional actions of the government officials in check. When legislatures pass laws that infringe on our rights the militia should be rising up & marching on the state, or US capitol and demand the law to be not be enacted by the governor, or president. The list could go on & on. We would not be having the troubles we are experiencing with a well regulated bonafide militia.

  2. After reading these comments I truly fear for this nation.
    Intl. Central Bankers control all earth. Gov and politics are how they keep you paasified and distracted.
    Nobody wants your guns…you shoot yourselveswith them 2/3rds of all gun deaths.them afterwards.
    ts at about 22 a day.
    The ssecond d most popular cult in US is Muslim…1st seems to be some version of geebus worship…although you could never tell it based on actions.
    We have invaded, removed/installed almost every dictator on earth, we train, arm, support them fully until we then battle them.
    Iran does not pose a threat to the US…our support for Zionist Israel(200+ nukes currently) is what is our greatest threat.

  3. Chickenhawk:

    I’m against gun control in any form, thought this article was insightful, and informative. I just hope you have a secret I.P. address, otherwise the guys driving black vehicles might be giving you a visit.

  4. I question this country’s government is in full favor of allowing a state sponsor of Iran to have nuclear weaponry, but at the same time, wishes to disarm its own citizens. If we as a people don’t see and force our leadership to recognize the irony of that position, the problem isn’t our government. The problem is with us.

    1. @Jim

      Couldn’t agree with you more…too many people sit around expecting someone else to take care of business. It’s imperiative that we keep ourselves informed and vote wisely…keep our elected officials informed about how we feel. After all, they are supposed to be working for us..

    2. One has to wonder at the motivation for this deal. Is it that Obama actually thinks this is a good idea, or is he so anxious to have something . . . anything to point to as his “legacy” that he will do whatever it takes to get into the history books. One can certainly not argue that he isn’t a narcissist of the nth degree.

      People like him will do anything to be in the spotlight, no matter how destructive it is.

  5. Perhaps it would be a good idea to see to it that Obama, Bloomberg, Clinton, and the rest of the leading moonbats of the anti-gun establishment all receive copies of this article…just sayin’.

  6. YOU allowed it, YOU wanted it… AND…. YOU voted for it too!

    How are you liking it now………..SHEEP?

    Democracy at it’s best, Liberty at it’s finest.

    YOU better be serving and paying your elected “Washington Masters”……

    “Ain’t Freedom Grand”………..Fresh Mutton Stew is on the dinner menu.

    Order up!

    1. Democracy and Collectivism go hand in hand and is the reason our country was founded as a Federal Republic and not a Democracy. A democracy is destructive to the idea of Freedom where a majority can take away individual freedoms.

  7. Sadly the “DUMB MAJORITY” is running the “US of A” into a deep hole of worthlessness.

    “We The People” are no longer served by the people we voted for and trusted to run this country the right way.

    “We The People” are now serving our elected “Masters in Washington”. Who only serve themselves.Too many of the “DUMB MAJORITY”, are too busy with their own life problems to concern themselves with the running of this nation and it’s problems.Thus the continued lowering of the American standard of living and freedom. The “bar of life” that was once set high in America, is now so low, you can crawl on your belly to get over it.

    There are too few of us “SMART MINORITY” to make the changes this country needs to put America back on top. Our numbers are too few to make the difference with a vote.The only way for the “SMART MINORITY” to help right the continuing wrongs of this country.Is by a BLOODY REVOLT. YES, BLOOD must be spilled to thin down the numbers of the “DUMB MAJORITY”. So the “DUMB MAJORITY” will become the “DUMB FEW”.That is the only way I see this once great country, becoming a great nation again.

    Tyranny has many faces, right now the “DUMB MAJORITY” is one of them.

    1. Yes, modern day ‘Bread & Circuses’ has served the oppressive govt very well – hollywood, reality TV, sports, welfare, unemployment, food stamps, 18 month election campaigns, daily media propaganda, etc, etc, etc.

    2. Well Bob, with that attitude we will not be able to overcome anything. I guess we ought a just turn our guns in & trade them for chains so they can just make bonafide slaves out of us.For me it is better to keep making a stand & possibly recruit some of the opposition. how them the error of their ways. Petition the governor of your state to regulate the militia. One of it’s duties to to enforce the laws, not statutes, codes & regulations. The real laws like the constitutional ones. With a well regulated militia we would not be experiencing the problems we have with government officials & bureaucracies that have run amok. If you are a member of any gun right groups I recommend start pushing for them to lobby the state governors to regulate the militia. A bonafide rights defending militia like the ones our forefathers had.

    1. @GregZ

      Agreed. The NRA, NAGR, GOA and your local state organization are all symbols of unity among respecters of the 2nd Amendment.

      Without their efforts we would be a much worse shape than we are.

    2. GregZ, et al. The NRA, lest you have forgotten your history, was formed by the very government hat is now after your weapons. It was formed to encourage civilian marksmanship programs and even provided surplus military rifles and ammunition not to protect gun owner ship. When the so-called Assault Weapons Bill was being so hotly debated, your precious NRA allowed as how such weapons had ‘no legitimate sporting purpose’ and with ‘high capacity’ anything over 10 rounds, should indeed be banned. In the 80’s or 90’s, I forget which, there were two men, fighting very loudly and very publicly as to which was the rightfully elected NRA president. This resulted in a split of members. Some going with one, some with the others. Up until this time, I was a long time member of the NRA, but no longer. The ‘Protectors of Gun Rights in America ,the NRA, has been the greatest asset that the government has ever had in disarming the U.S. Sorry to have gotten off point, but a history lesson needed to be taught. Old Saying: “Those that refuse to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” Can’t remember who said it is but it had been attributed at various times to Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson and George Washington. All three of whom faced British tyranny and gun, gun powder, and lead (for bullets) confiscation.

    3. You pretty much nailed it, Roy. Nice to hear the straight poop for a change, instead of the brainwashed NRA propaganda.

      I wouldn’t necessarily say the NRA has been the greatest asset the govt has had for disarming us, but they’ve done more harm than good.

  8. A movement is sweeping the nation, as Patriots everywhere have said, “NO MORE” to tyrannical gun control. If your state is one of those that thinks gun control placed upon its peaceable citizens is the “common sense answer to gun violence” then join us in CT, NY, MD, CO, OR, WA in The Armed Civil Disobedience of Non-Compliance. I have proudly been a participant in Kommiecticut since 1994, and am getting close to the point where I will become a felon across state lines, with my own brand of reciprocity.

    “Resist, defy, deceive, evade, and smuggle!”

  9. Learn the difference between Libertarian and Socialist. Read up on The Human Tone Scale so you can protect your family and loved ones against the suppressives. Learn to spot the undesireables in your society before it is too late.

  10. Our present gov. has taken heed of disarmament through “soft tyranny” as Levin states.The population must understand that it is their historic duty to resist usurpers like obama and the ilk.Hundreds of thousands of regulations make each and every one of us a potential criminal through the eyes of a gov. agency.Put your head in the sand at your own peril. We owe the Founding Fathers our loyalty.

  11. 2A is only one of 10 in our Bill of Rights. Seems everyone, including myself, has their own opinion of which one was the “straw that broke the camel’s back.” when it came to our Fore-fathers. .I, however, do NOT attempt to make money writing about it.

  12. I have been informing people of this for some years now. It seems fitting that it was the governor of Massachusetts who wrote to the British Commander saying that if they wanted to control the colonists the best way would be to disarm them. Today, MA is one of the worst anti-gun states.

    1. @ Mike Sulewski

      I believe the letter “DaveW” is eluding to, is the one sent from Lord Dartmouth, the Royal Secretary of State of America. To Royal Governor of Massachusetts, General Thomas Gage in 17 October 1774. Urging him (the General Thomas Gage) to disarm New England.

      It can be found in the Administrative and Regulatory Law News (American Bar Association) Volume 37 Number 4 by David B. Kopel, titled: “Right To Arms In the Founding Era”…

  13. This is another example of “Paper Will Not Refuse Ink”. No idea if True or Not. Sounds plausible, but in the 21st Century “Who Cares”? No idea how the Government can control guns. Wish the NRA would spend its extra money, not on Politics, but on Gun Education. I am a Gun Owner but not a Gun advocate. I know a Lady who owns a Dude Ranch in Eastern Washington. Has a “Skeet” range on the Ranch. Uses it to teach disadvantaged teenagers how to handle a shotgun and have some fun. Guns were given to Her by local Ranchers as well as Skeet shells. Her Ranch Hands do the supervising/training. All have a hoot.

    1. I wouldn’t trust the NRA as far as I could throw them. I would put my money on the GOA. There more hardcore than the NRA. I only go to the NRA for info and maybe their programs

    2. The NRA is the largest gun education organization in the United States and has been for quite some time.

      Just as an aside, anyone who says they do not “trust the NRA”, does not understand who its members are or what we do. In 2015, quite frankly that ignorance is a choice.

      The NRA are your neighbors.

    3. I wasn’t talking about the members who are indeed our neighbors, I’m talking about the lobbyist who in my opinion could be a whole lot more hardcore. That said I’m grateful that at least someone is standing for the second amendment.

  14. Well done sir.

    As a proud American of Scot history, I can only say that while the ‘free world’ wrung its hands over Palestine and the Ukraine where were they when the Damn English were in Northern Ireland?

    Thank God we defeated that evil empire and made this great country.


  15. My ancestors kept their weapons at home, not at an armory. They were well regulated, meaning they knew how to use them and could assemble as the militia and fight as a unit. They were thus ready in 1776 and in 1812 to fight the British. During WW II my father loaned the military weapons till they could produce enough to arm the guards at our local bases with government weapons.The 2nd amendment is about keeping the means to resist a tyrannical government at hand ie close at home. Who but a liberal democrat would believe the government would open an armory to citizens soldiers resisting government tyranny.

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