Firearms Law Workshop Mini-Symposium, Part IV: Regulation, Not Rights: the Early History of a National Firearms Industry

It should be no surprise that today some of the biggest gun companies are in New England, where the government fostered the development of firearms manufacturing. These include Colt’s Manufacturing Company LLC (Hartford, CT), Smith and Wesson (Springfield, MA), and Sturm, Ruger & Co., Inc., (Southport, CT). Although discussions of gun culture today tend to focus on the Second Amendment, we should consider the origins of the government’s intervention in the arms industry, a history that involves regulating the types of firearms manufacturers brought to the market. By understanding the precise ways the federal government fostered the emergence of an industry that is dependent on both military conflict and a civilian gun culture, we can point to the ways the government is obligated to regulate it. It is more than a Second Amendment issue; it is a safety regulation issue.

The Militia Act of 1792 required militia members to provide themselves with a musket, but many struggled to arm themselves in the face of post-war shortages. The federal government’s solution involved the construction of two federal armories, in Springfield, Massachusetts and Harpers Ferry, Virginia and five-year renewable contracts that came with 10-20 percent cash advances, as well as requirements that gun parts conform to federal standards and pass regular inspections. These contracts kept a small cohort of arms makers in the Connecticut River Valley steadily employed; according to one arms contractor, “if the patronage of the government is not continued, our factories will be worth but little.”[1]

The federal government helped Samuel Colt, for example, become one of America’s most eminent arms makers. In the 1830s, a board of ordnance officers tested his newly developed musket, but noted that several features caused safety risks. After making changes, Colt entered a short-term contract with the government. Colt also borrowed government-subsidized machinery to build a new factory in Hartford, Connecticut. His business was further helped by new civilian demand, which peaked after Colt used soldier testimony from Florida and Mexico in the 1830s and 1840s to market his guns as agents of frontier conquest. As Colt’s business took off in the years following the Mexican American War, he owed at least some of his success to a half century of government intervention in the arms industry.

As lawmakers face opposition when they attempt to regulate guns favored by the industry, we need to reevaluate policy aims based on true historical precedent. It is not historically sound for policymakers to allow gun manufacturers and marketers to determine what arms are in “common use.” By fully understanding the historical relationship between the firearms industry and the government, lawmakers could assert their prerogative to intervene with gun safety regulations. Armed with historical knowledge, sensible gun control might be seen as both constitutionally and politically sound.

[1] Memorial of Private Contractors to U.S. Congress, 1835?, Waters Family, Papers, 1749-1873, BoxW1, Folder 4 1835, American Antiquarian Society.

[Ed. Note: This post is part of a series on the papers presented at the Center’s first Firearms Law Works-in-Progress Workshop on August 2, 2019.]