How Gun Control Led to the Bill of Rights

blogbig02In 1666, much of London was destroyed by fire. While the main culprit were tightly packed wooden buildings, a primary accelerant to the fire was various stores of gunpowder and other arms ignited by the flames. Much of the powder was in the homes of private citizens, left there from the days of the English Civil War. The Tower of London alone stored five-hundred tons of powder.

This was the beginning of modern municipal fire codes. And a new principle of city planning realized centralizing gunpowder in a separate building, removed from homes, was safer and had the incidental benefit of making all of the arms in a community easily controllable by the government. The name given to these types of buildings was the magazine; and one was found in most, if not all, larger population centers, including the capitol of the Virginia colony at Williamsburg.

By 1775, in the wake of various revolutionary episodes, including Patrick Henry’s now famous “Give me liberty or give me death” speech, patriotic agitations had reached such a pitch that the British authorities felt they needed to begin taking concrete action…for their own preservation.

On April 20, 1775, the day after the battles of Concord and Lexington, Lt. Henry Collins, at the orders of Lord Dunmore, the Royal Governor of Virginia, took twenty men to the magazine in Williamsburg and removed 15 half-barrels of gunpowder. The theft was discovered even before morning, and before noon an angry mob of Virginians had marched down the Williamsburg Commons and threatened the governor and his mansion if their gunpowder was not returned.

Cooler, or perhaps more opportunistic, heads prevailed. And the mob was persuaded not to burn down the governor’s mansion by Peyton Randolph, speaker of the House of Burgesses and president of the first Continental Congress, who instead attempted to negotiate with the governor on a more equal and diplomatic footing. “Helping” the situation was Patrick Henry who had raised a militia from Hanover County and was marching loudly towards Williamsburg.

In the end, the situation was resolved in a face-saving manner by the Crown reimbursing the colonists for the value of the gunpowder.

Some fourteen years later, that same Patrick Henry, sitting in the new Virginia General Assembly, when presented with the new Constitution, took up the campaign for a bill of enumerated rights as a condition to Virginia’s ratification of the document.

Henry was suspicious of vague grants of power to distant sovereigns and had lived through the capricious colonial administration and the subsequent Revolutionary War. He had seen firsthand where absolute monarchs had expanded and intruded with their power into the rights and privacy of Englishmen. and was unwilling to replace one absolute monarch with a new absolute federal government.

His solution was to demand certain enumerated rights, or restrictions on government, that would serve as limitations on the powers of the new federal government. The first of these limitations was the freedom of the press and association. The second was specifically authored to prevent any repeat of Lord Dunmore’s 1775 adventure.

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