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Repository Highlight: 19th-Century Firearm Laws Penalizing the Refusal to Arrest

  • Date:
  • September 29th, 2023

By: Ethan Margolis

As the manager of the Repository of Historical Gun Laws at the Duke Center for Firearms Law, I spend a great deal of my time searching for and reviewing historical firearm regulations. Occasionally, during this research, I serendipitously come across unusual, intriguing, or enlightening laws. This post is the first in what will be an ongoing series of blog posts highlighting interesting regulations in the Repository.

Before getting into the substance, I should briefly explain a bit about my background. I hold an MA in History from North Carolina State University and a MLIS (Master’s in Library and Information Science) from North Carolina Central University.  I worked as a librarian at a variety of public and private institutions before joining the Center earlier this year.

This post highlights an interesting set of regulations I have not seen discussed elsewhere: 19th-century laws that include provisions setting forth significant punishments for peace officers (individuals responsible for enforcing the law) who refused to arrest someone suspected of violating a gun-related restriction.

These "refuse to arrest" provisions generally were included within laws that limited the carrying of certain easily concealable weapons, and—as you can see from the sample below—similar provisions appeared across the country in the mid-late 1800s.  Readers can find "refuse to arrest" laws in the Repository by following this link.

While determining the rationale for these provisions is beyond the scope of this short post, I have found one clue related to the Maryland law. On January 13, 1860, a Baltimore newspaper called The Daily Exchange published an article entitled "More Incidents of the November Election.” One incident described in the article involved a political gang known as the "Rip-Raps," a violent arm of the Know-Nothing movement associated with the American Party:

…I at once saw Gregory… Barrett … in the act of firing a revolver; I saw him fire three times, one of his shots taking effect in Daniel Duffy, another in Mr. Stiles, I did not recognize the third person he shot at; immediately upon discharging the third barrel of his pistol, as witnessed by me, a police officer approached him, whom Gregory Barrett took by the lappel of his coat and pointing with his pistol towards the house into which Duffy had escaped, they both went in the direction of the house… when they came out of the house together, and passed in the direction of the polls… perceiving that Barrett was not in custody, but that the police officers were acting apparently in complicity with him, I crossed the street, and said to [officer] No. 223, that it must be apparent to him that Barret was armed and attempting to take human life, and that it was his duty to take him into custody immediately; upon which he looked me sternly in the face and replied; "You be damned, attend to your own business…" (emphasis added)

The article goes on to detail a number of similar stories. Ideologically, the Rip-Raps were nativist, strongly anti-immigrant, and especially concerned about the German and Irish Catholics who had recently come to the US in large numbers. The Know-Nothing movement was more or less national in scope, but support for it in Baltimore was especially strong (see this 2008 article for additional background).

The Daily Exchange included several other eye-witness interviews, and, in each case, the police refused to arrest any of the perpetrators, perhaps because they were sympathetic to the political views of the Rip-Raps. The refusal-to-arrest provision included in the St. Mary’s County, Maryland law of 1886 may have been intended in part to prevent similar events from happening in the future, especially considering its focus on restricting public carry during elections. While it is difficult to draw any definite conclusions, the inclusion of refusal-to-arrest penalties in 19th century public carry regulations is an especially promising area for further historical research.