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Gun Control: A Historical Perspective, Part 2


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Let’s look at a few recent examples in history of armed and disarmed populaces.

A shining example of the former is Switzerland. Like America, Switzerland won its independence in a war fought by armed citizenry. Since independence in the 14th century, the Swiss have been required to keep and bear arms, and since 1515, have had a policy of armed neutrality. Its form of government is similar to the one set up by our founders — a weak central government exercising few, defined powers having to do mostly with external affairs and limited authority over internal matters at the canton (state) and local levels.

The Swiss boast that they have the weakest central government in the West. They feel a strong central government weakens citizen initiative and individual responsibility. I wonder where they got that idea!

A Swiss publication states, “The Swiss do not have an army, they are the army.” The eighteenth-century economist Adam Smith considered Switzerland the only place where the whole body of the people were successfully drilled in militia skills. As far back as 1532, Machiavelli commented in his book The Prince , “The Swiss are well armed and enjoy great freedom.”

Gun ownership is a matter of community duty, for the Swiss consider national defense too important to be left to professional soldiers or those who join the army to learn civilian job skills.

Every able-bodied male from about age 21 receives 17 weeks of military training, and for the next thirty years engages in decreasing increments of mandatory training amounting to about one year of direct military service. He then serves on reserve status until age 50 or 55. Enlisted men take home automatic-assault rifles and officers their pistols, ammunition, and necessary equipment and supplies. Voluntary marksmanship training is common. Almost anyone can purchase surplus machine guns, antiaircraft and antitank weapons, howitzers, and artillery pieces, as Americans could at one time. Yet the crime rate is so low, statistics aren’t even kept.

In 1978, the Swiss refused to ratify a Council of Europe Convention on Control of Firearms. Switzerland was then pressured by other European governments to adopt a law barring foreigners from purchasing guns in Switzerland which they could not purchase in their own countries, and requiring a license for Swiss citizens. Outraged citizens forced the central government to abandon any idea of such a law, and the one canton which had enacted similar legislation had it overturned the following year in a referendum.

A popular story at the turn of the century concerned an earlier visit by the Crown Prince and later Kaiser of Germany, Wilhelm Hohenzollern, to view the Swiss militia in training. He supposedly asked the Swiss commander how many men he had under arms. When the commander answered one million, Wilhelm asked what would happen if five million of his men crossed the Swiss border tomorrow. The Swiss commander replied that each of his men would fire five shots and go home.

No one knows whether this had anything to do with the scrapping of the German plan to flank France at the onset of World War I by passing through the northern Swiss lowlands, or of the French plan to attack the German flank through Switzerland, but most Swiss and many historians think it did.

During World War II, Hitler coveted the Swiss gold reserves and needed lines of supply and communications through Switzerland to supply Axis forces in the Mediterranean. An analysis of Switzerland’s well-armed citizenry, mountainous terrain, fortifications, and civil-defense preparations convinced German military planners to forgo an invasion.

The Afghans are a recent example of an armed populace who, though backward and using mostly outdated weapons, drove the Soviet invaders from the country and overthrew a puppet government. You can bet the Afghans don’t believe in gun control.

The U.S. Army troops who perpetrated the Wounded Knee massacre in 1890 first convinced their intended victims to disarm. The villagers at My Lai were unarmed. Throughout history, the greatest atrocities have been inflicted upon the unarmed.

In 1920, the British government disarmed its populace on the pretext of reducing crime. The real reason was the ruling class’ fear of a popular revolution, for the bankruptcy of the British nation which had occurred in 1916 and the staggering casualties suffered in the war had been kept from the British people. By 1919, in the face of massive unemployment and starvation, and expected loved ones not returning, the truth could no longer be hidden.

In retrospect, the fear of a violent revolution was exaggerated. But the crime rate has done nothing but increase since the gun grab.

Since ancient times, the well-armed individual organized into militia units was not only the best method of preventing one noble or chief from gaining too much power, but also the least costly way of using limited manpower to defend the community or tribe.

In today’s technological society, it is still true that the well-armed and trained individual, especially when organized into locally led militia units, is a threat to centralized control.

When a nation’s policy is defensive, militias are generally adequate and successful, as in the case of Switzerland. But our forefathers knew that every nation that disarmed its citizens, and who ceased to depend upon militias for its defense, relying instead upon standing armies, inevitably embarked upon an imperialistic policy abroad and authoritarian rule at home, and eventually destroyed itself.

Machiavelli understood this lesson of history, for he wrote in the early 16th century that it is a “legally armed” citizenry which has kept governments “free and incorrupt. . . . Rome remained free for four hundred years and Sparta eight hundred although their citizens were well armed at the time; but many other states that have been disarmed have lost their liberties in less than forty years.”

Our Constitution is eloquent testimony to the distrust of our forefathers for government and its monopoly on force. Article I, Section 8 of that document authorizes Congress “To raise and support Armies,” limiting appropriations to two years. Yet, the very next clause authorizes Congress “[t]o provide and maintain a Navy,” without restrictions on appropriations. In giving authority to raise and support in one case with funding limitations, but to provide and maintain in the other without funding limitations, shows their distrust for standing armies, navies by themselves not being a threat to liberty. Further in that article, Congress is given authority not to raise and maintain a Militia, but to call it forth to execute the Laws of the Union, suppress Insurrections and repel Invasions as well as to organize, arm, and discipline it. The federal government only has authority to govern that part of the Militia which may be employed in the Service of the United States, leaving to the States the authority to appoint its officers and train its members.

We should take alarm at the 20,000-odd laws across this country restricting the right to keep and bear arms and the recent attempts by public officials and private organizations to further encroach upon this right, for as George Mason observed, over two hundred years ago, “To disarm the people. . . was the best and most effectual way to enslave them.”

Or as Noah Webster, his contemporary, remarked, “Before a standing army can rule, the people must be disarmed.”

Richard Henry Lee, who first proposed independence at the Continental Congress of 1776, warned that “To preserve liberty, it is essential that the whole body of the people always possess arms, and be taught alike, especially when young, how to use them.”

To which we may add the comments of Eldridge Gerry, a signer of the Declaration of Independence: “Whenever Governments mean to invade the Rights and Liberties of the People, They always attempt to destroy the Militia, in order to raise an army upon their ruins.”

Since ancient times, weapon control and game laws have been used by ruling elites to dominate populations, prevent effective resistance to their arbitrary rule, and to maintain a subservient labor force. Only those with a license were allowed to hunt, these eventually being restricted to the gentry and those in political favor. Even Blackstone in his Commentaries remarked, “Prevention of popular insurrections and resistance to the government by disarming the bulk of the people . . . is a reason oftener meant, than avowed, by the makers of the forest and game laws.” By mere coincidence, only licensed hunting is legal today even on private property, and hunters are under increasing attack. Could the motivation be the same?

Let’s face it, the only reason for gun registration is eventual gun confiscation. And the only reason behind gun confiscation, is eventual tyranny.

Josh Sugarmann, former communications director of the National Coalition to Ban Handguns, wrote recently in The Washington Monthly : “. . . handgun controls do little to stop criminals from obtaining handguns.” Then why the recent hysterical campaign for gun control? Sugarmann answers this question by stating that he and his associates favor gun control not to disarm criminals, but because they believe Americans cannot be trusted with guns.

The question remains, trusted to do what?

Just as with the British ruling elite following World War I, they have kept from the American people the knowledge of the catastrophic effects of their political and economic policies which are coming home to roost, and of the impending authoritarian measures they intend to implement to maintain their rule. They rightfully deduce that enough of us will realize who is at fault as the scarcity of food and work become more acute, and crime more plentiful, and will no longer fall for their divide-and-conquer tactic of shifting the blame for our woes to foreigners making better goods, to illegal aliens taking away our jobs, to drug pushers threatening our national security, and will instead hold them accountable.

This is why the campaign to disarm Americans is so spontaneous, coordinated, and unrelenting. They know that our other rights are unenforceable without the means to secure them. And that Americans who have sought and continue to seek every peaceful means of redressing grievances are about to run out of patience in the face of economic collapse, social upheaval, and increasingly venal and arbitrary legislation and law enforcement.

Just as the British policy banning the importation of arms and ammunition in 1774 alerted our forefathers to the government’s true motives and led them to form militias throughout the colonies, so President Bush’s ban on the importation of certain firearms in March 1989 and other gun-control measures have awakened quite a few patriotic Americans and moved them to join our political ranks.

Ultimately, it was the possession and expert use of firearms which made American independence attainable. Patrick Henry admonished future generations to “Guard with jealous attention the public liberty. Suspect everyone who approaches that jewel. Unfortunately, nothing will preserve it but downright force. Whenever you give up that force, you are ruined.”

Only time will tell whether enough Americans have learned the lessons of history or whether we will suffer the consequences of apathy and unpreparedness.

Part 1 | Part 2

This is part two of a two-part essay and is based on a speech Mr. LaRosa gave at the Texas Libertarian Party Convention in San Antonio, Texas, on June 9, 1990. Reprinted by permission. For a reprint of this essay in pamphlet form, send $2.00 to Benedict D. LaRosa, 13423 Blanco Road, #181, San Antonio, TX 78216.

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    Benedict LaRosa is a historian and writer with undergraduate and graduate degrees in history from the U.S. Air Force Academy and Duke University, respectively.