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tense, raised in the United States.” When
Thomas Jefferson wished to impress upon
his countrymen the dangers of a national
bank, he found an apt comparison in the
threat posed by a permanent army, ever at
the service of the central government. “I
believe that banking institutions are more
dangerous to our liberties than standing
armies,” he said.
Americans of that generation had
learned from history, both ancient and
modern. Aristotle, writing in the fourth
century B.C., warned in his
rulers who would disarm the population.
As of oligarchy so of tyranny,” he wrote.
Both mistrust the people, and therefore
deprive them of their arms.”
Following the defeat of Athens by
Sparta in the Peloponnesian War, the bulk
of the Athenian population was disarmed
and left defenseless against the crimes and
cruelties of a ruling oligarchy known to
history as the Thirty Tyrants. When Car-
thaginians in the second century B.C. sur-
rendered their weapons to a Roman army
in exchange for promises of peace and se-
curity, the Romans moved in and burned
to the ground a thriving city and a center
of commerce in the ancient world. The
people forged new weapons and fought
to win back their land and their freedom,
but could not overcome the advantage
they had ceded by their previous surren-
der. In the end, wrote historian Bernard D.
The city’s population had been re-
duced from 500,000 to 55,000 during
its siege and capture. The survivors
were sold as slaves, the city pillaged
and then burned to the ground, its
soil plowed and sown with salt. All
Carthage’s dependencies who had
stood by her were destroyed. The city
burned for 17 days.
Machiavelli, writing in the 16th century,
declared it is a “legally armed” people
who are likely to preserve their freedom.
Rome,” he wrote, “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.”
By the middle of the 16th century, fire-
arms had become commonplace in Eng-
land and, as the nation became increasing-
ly Protestant following King Henry VIII’s
separation from Rome, issues of gun
ownership became entangled in England’s
frequently bloody religious conflicts. The
attempt by King James II, a Catholic, to
disarm many of his Protestant subjects in
the 17th century contributed to the popular
uprising that led to his overthrow in the
Glorious Revolution of 1688. In the Bill
of Rights established the following year, a
qualified right of gun ownership was rec-
ognized, stating: “
That the Subjects which
are Protestants may have Arms for their
Defence suitable to their Conditions and
as allowed by Law.” Once freed from the
arbitrary rule of the crown, England’s for-
mer subjects in America affirmed in our
own Bill of Rights a “right of the people
to keep and bear arms,” without regard to
their social or political “conditions” or
By the latter half of the 19th century,
the increased production and falling prices
of firearms resulted in widespread own-
ership of guns by the common people of
England, a trend viewed with alarm by
some of the ruling gentry. In 1870, the
chancellor of the exchequer introduced
a gun-licensing bill under the guise of a
revenue raising measure. Any firearm of
any description, other than one kept at the
owner’s home, would have to be registered
at an annual fee of one pound, a consid-
erable sum for the working-class people
of that time. The bill would create a na-
tional registry of firearms. The chancellor
hoped to make all firearms too expensive
for the poor to carry,” wrote Joyce Lee
Malcolm in
Guns and Violence: The Eng-
lish Experience
It was designed,
one member of parliament objected, “to
operate most unequally and unjustly” and
would “bring our laws and customs into
harmony with the most despotic of Conti-
nental Governments.”
The law was enacted, but despite that
and other more severe restrictions on gun
ownership adopted in the 20th century, the
British have been spared the deadly con-
sequences of gun bans visited on people
living under the “most despotic of Conti-
nental Governments.”
An Armenian revolt in 1893 was quickly
crushed by the government of the Ottoman
Empire, which then armed and encour-
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More than “papers, please”:
Germany under Adolf Hitler took guns from Jews, the residents
of the countries they invaded, such as the Polish people shown here, and anyone considered a
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