The Historical Pedigree of Long Gun Registration

  • Date:
  • July 16, 2019

In Heller II, the D.C. Circuit claimed that long gun registration requirements are novel, not historic. Heller III reiterated this line, stating that the registration requirement for long guns lacks the “historical pedigree” of the registration requirement for handguns. But is this entirely right? Historical American firearm registration laws suggest that long gun registration is far from novel.

After delving into the Repository of Historical Gun Laws, I found several state (and territorial) statutes from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries that required the registration, licensing, or reporting of long guns. These laws contained similar requirements to handgun registration laws. An especially common trend was the requirement of identifying information of both the firearm purchased and the purchaser.

One of the early regulations on long guns was an 1893 Florida law. The statute required a license and $100 bond to carry or own a Winchester or other repeating rifle. The license application required identifying information, including the name of the person taking out the license, the maker of the firearm, the caliber, and the number of the firearm. The explicit mention of rifles and the brand name “Winchester” indicates the statute applied to long guns. (Note that commentators have flagged the likely racist motives of this legislation.)

Several other laws, like the 1893 Florida law, were explicit about the inclusion of long guns. For example, a 1918 Montana law required every person who owned or possessed any firearms to make a report of such firearms to the county sheriff. The act defined “firearms” as any revolver, pistol, shotgun, or rifle. The definition of “firearms” explicitly included long guns.

Similarly, a 1933 Hawaii law required a permit to obtain firearms of any description, “whether usable or unusable, serviceable or unserviceable, modern or antique.” The act defined “firearm” as including “pistols, revolvers, rifles, shotguns, machine guns, [and] automatic rifles,” among other explosive weapons.

Finally, a 1933 Wyoming law required the registration of all firearms. The registry collected the identifying information of the name of the manufacturer, the person from whom the firearm was obtained, the date of its acquisition, the manufacturer’s number, its color, its caliber, whether the firearm was new or secondhand, whether it was automatic, a revolver, a single shot pistol, a rifle, a shotgun or machine gun, and the purchaser’s name. The registry’s inclusion of this information shows that long guns were being registered as well as handguns.

On the other hand, some statutes used broader terms like “gun” or “firearm.” The historical definitions of these terms suggest that such statutes included long guns.

Webster’s 1828 American Dictionary of the English Language defined “gun” as “[a]n instrument consisting of a barrel or tube of iron or other metal fixed in a stock, from which balls, shot, or other deadly weapons are discharged by the explosion of gunpowder.” Importantly, according to Webster’s, pistols were “never called a gun.” The broad definition, as well as the explicit exclusion of pistols, implies that the term “gun” historically included long guns. Further, the same dictionary defined “firearms” as “[a]rms or weapons which expel their charge by the combustion of powder, as pistols, muskets, &c.” Again, the broad definition implies the inclusion of long guns.

A few licensing and registration laws used the general term “guns” or “firearms,” which implied application to long guns. For example, a 1913 Michigan law required that retail businesses keep a register of every purchaser of guns, pistols, other firearms, and silencers.

Along the same lines, a 1917 New Hampshire law required an application for noncitizens of the United States to possess any firearm of any description. The application required identifying information, including full name, occupation, and residential address. Even more, the noncitizen was required to display his permit when requested by any person. (Note: This law is in the process of being added to the Repository, so the link is to HeinOnline.)

Similarly broad, a 1925 Michigan law required the purchaser of any gun to give the seller a statement of personal identifying information to forward to the police or county sheriff.

The list of historical long gun registration laws is not exhaustive. What it already shows, however, is that registration before 1934 was not limited to handguns.

[Ed. Note: This post about gun laws in the Center’s Repository of Historical Gun Laws is written by Center research assistant Genesa Cefali. This post, like the Repository, is exemplary and not exhaustive.]