We live in an era of liberalization of concealed weapons laws (i.e., laws are less restrictive), so it is interesting to re-visit history to see why states developed restrictions on concealed weapons in the first place. In my last post, I gave some descriptive information about the first 8 states that restricted concealed weapons, culled from Clayton Cramer’s book 1999 Concealed Weapon Laws of the Early Republic. In this post, I want to delve deeper into Cramer’s explanation for those laws (which even he admits is somewhat speculative due to the paucity of historical data on which to draw).
Of interest here are the earliest states to act on this issue, which were: Kentucky (1813), Louisiana (1813), Indiana (1820), Georgia (1837), Arkansas (1837-38), Tennessee (1838), Virginia (1838), and Alabama (1839). Looking at this list, Cramer asks, “Why did the slave states take an early lead in regulating the carrying of concealed weapons?” (Although not technically a slave state, Indiana was strongly influenced by migration from the south, and even today Indiana is seen by some as “Northern Kentucky” rather than a Midwestern state like Michigan.)
Dogs That Won’t Hunt
Given the racist origins and consequences of many restrictive laws over the course of American history, a simple explanation for the rise of concealed weapon laws in slave states is that they were meant to control the black population. But prior to the 14th amendment, Cramer argues, race-specific laws were common, and so the fact that the concealed weapon laws were written in race-neutral language suggests that something broader was driving these laws.
In a chapter called “That Dog Won’t Hunt,” Cramer discounts other explanations for the rise of concealed weapons laws that he believes “do not hunt.” These include:
- The laws were passed in response to technological innovations such as the introduction by Samuel colt of the revolver in 1838. This argument does not hold water because there were repeating firearms before the Colt revolver, many concealed weapon bans preceded 1838, and it is not only firearms that are banned in these acts (pp. 127-28).
- The laws were passed because on the frontier handguns were viewed as the weapon of criminals as compared to long guns and so should be banned. This theory does not make sense because free states on the frontier did not impose bans on concealed weapons. The bans were also much broader than just firearms.
- The laws were passed to protect abolitionists and others from mob actions in the 1830s. While this theory could explain the laws passed in the late 1830s, it cannot explain the earlier and very similar laws passed when abolitionism was not a major issue (p. 130).
- The laws were passed in response to urbanization and its associated social problems. Although this explanation may apply to concealed weapons bans passed in the 20th century, such as California’s and Idaho’s, it is not applicable to the concealed weapon laws of the early Republic which took hold first in the less urbanized southern states (pp. 133-134).
Having discounted these other explanations, Cramer focuses in on the factors he believes drove the passage of these first concealed weapons laws. His answer to his own question can, in fact, be found in the subtitle to the book: Dueling, Southern Violence, and Moral Reform.
Dueling and the Back Country Culture of Violence
Cramer centers his explanation for the rise of the first concealed weapon laws on the harmful effects of the back country culture of violence found especially in the southern United States. He observes, “Kentucky was the first American state to adopt a law regulating the carrying of concealed weapons. From all available evidence, this is no coincidence — Kentucky was at or near the center of the back country culture of violence. This violent culture was shared throughout the trans-Appalachian states, from Western Pennsylvania, through the southern part of the Northwest territory, Tennessee, and into the upland parts of the deep South, roughly corresponding to the early Republic’s concealed weapons law states” (p. 17).
In this culture, people were expected to resort to personal violence to resolve minor disputes, and especially insults to their honor. Although the explanatory power of the “southern culture of violence” theory has been challenged, an observation by a lawyer in Alabama in 1831 — captured by the great French student of American democracy, Alexis de Tocqueville, in his Journey to America — conveys a sense of a situation that would lead legislatures to seek remedies such as bans on concealed weapons: “There is no one here but carries arms under his clothes. At the slightest quarrel, knife or pistol comes to hand. These things happen continually; it is a semi-barbarous state of society” (quoted in Cramer, p. 117).
In some cases, efforts to suppress dueling as a means of resolving personal disputes — the “moral reform” Cramer refers to in his subtitle – had an unintended consequence of promoting more spontaneous interpersonal violence, which the concealed weapon laws were then designed to counteract. According to Robert Ireland, “When the duel was legal, men did not need to arm themselves because they knew that the formal mechanisms of the duel were available to resolve affairs of honor. Thus, sudden quarrels seldom produced immediate bloodshed because so few men habitually arm themselves. With the outlawing of the duel, cowards began to wear concealed arms since they no longer had to worry about social ostracism if they use their concealed weapons to surprise and unfairly take advantage of their adversaries. Courageous gentleman followed suit to protect themselves from cowardly assassination” (quoted by Cramer, p. 57).
Whatever the ultimate explanation for the prevalence of interpersonal violence in the southern United States, it seems clear that the proximate cause for the passage of these first 8 concealed weapons laws prior to 1840 was a (real or perceived) rise in violence perpetrated with concealed weapons, especially cutting and stabbing weapons. As I will discuss in future posts, restrictions on concealed weapons would expand through the United States another hundred years, often based on the precedent set by these early adopters of concealed weapon laws.