When Virginia was drafting its state constitution in 1776, American founding father Thomas Jefferson wrote that “no freeman shall ever be debarred the use of arms.” Yet Jefferson had been dead just 11 years before the first attempt was made to severely restrict gun ownership. It happened in Georgia in 1837, nearly 100 years before the first federal gun control laws would be passed.
The Nation's First Gun Ban
Georgia’s state legislature passed a law in 1837 that banned the sale of knives “used for offensive or defensive purposes” and all pistols except “horseman’s pistols.” Possession of those weapons was also prohibited, unless the weapons were worn in plain sight.
History did not well record the reasoning behind the legislature’s vote. What we do know is that the legislation stood as the law of the land in Georgia for eight years before the state’s supreme court declared it unconstitutional and voided it from the books.
Applying Federal Rights to State Law
America’s founding fathers made sure to include a right to keep and bear arms in the Bill of Rights. But the right to keep and bear arms wasn’t limited to the Second Amendment; many states incorporated a right to bear arms into their constitutions as well.
Georgia was a rare exception. The state’s constitution included no right to bear arms. So when Georgia’s ban on small handguns was finally challenged in the state’s supreme court, in 1845’s Nunn v. State of Georgia, the court had no precedent and no state constitutional mandate to apply. So, they looked to the federal constitution, and cited the Second Amendment heavily in their decision to strike down the gun ban as unconstitutional.
The court ruled that the Second Amendment guaranteed “the right of the whole people, old and young, women and boys, and not militia only, to keep and bear arms of every description, and not merely such as are used by the militia, shall not be infringed, curtailed, or broken in on, in the slightest degree; and all this for the important end to be attained: the rearing up and qualifying of a well regulated militia, so vitally necessary to the security of a free state.”
The court went on to ask, since when does “any legislative body in the Union have the right to deny to its citizens the privilege of keeping and bearing arms in defense of themselves and their country.”
Georgia finally did amend its constitution to include a right to bear arms in 1877, adopting a version very similar to the Second Amendment. With a handful of exceptions that were mostly minor and usually involved states ruling that freed slaves could not own guns, efforts to restrict gun rights were largely over after the Georgia Supreme Court’s 1845 ruling. Not until 1911, when New York City enacted a law requiring gun owners to be licensed, would major laws restricting gun rights resurface in America.