Economic history, my collegiate academic fascination, focuses upon the adaptation of societal institutions to technical innovations. The American legal history of the right to keep and bear arms can be traced back to the deposition of King James II, who prevented Protestants from owning firearms. The English constitutional right that “Protestants may have Arms for their Defence suitable to their Conditions and as allowed by Law” then served as the model for the American Bill of Rights.
Here in the States, however, firearms were not stored in a castle “keep” with villiens, as part of their required service, bearing the cost to maintain them. The Militia Acts in most colonies required property owners, slaves excluded, to maintain a firearm. After Yorktown, however, when the Continental Congress could not pay our soldiers, they then had their firearms “for keeps.” In America, we lost the notion that keeping arms meant that one must bear the cost to store them in a castle keep. Americans replaced that British conception with the idea that "keeping," as that word is used in the Second Amendment, meant ownership of personal property, not a power to tax in the form of service to a lord.
The prosperity that ordered liberty brought to the states during the 60 or so years that followed the adoption of the Constitution yielded technical innovation in the manufacture of firearms such as interchangeable parts and mass production. I have argued here that the mass production of the Sharps Carbine tipped the balance in Bleeding Kansas toward the final rejection of that horrendous English belief that certain people enjoy a right to greater freedom than others. Yet, as one state copied the Militia Act of another, slaves were prohibited from possessing a firearm.
The uniquely American idea, ultimately antithetical to the complete deprivation liberty, of a personal right to keep and bear arms, brought the United States to a violent tipping point. This came, however, only after the relative cost of firearms made them widely available to more than those landed men who were required to participate in the militias. In the days that Kansas formed as a state, abolitionist Protestants, armed with Beecher’s Bibles, opposed those who sought to keep slaves:
We therefore accept the weapons, also, and like our fathers, we go with the Bible, to indicate the peaceful nature of our mission, and the harmless character of our company, and a weapon to teach those who may be disposed to molest us (if any such there be), that while we determine to do only that which is right, we will not submit tamely to that which is wrong.
Letter of C.B. Lines to Rev. Henry Ward Beecher, March 31, 1856The inhabitants of the Kansas territory thus saw the impact of abolitionists armed with the Sharps Carbine. The people of Kansas thereafter adopted the Wyandotte Constitution, that declared, “The people have a right to bear arms for their defense and security,” and that, “There shall be no slavery in this State, and no involuntary servitude, except for the punishment of crime, whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.” As a result, after October 4, 1859, a person of any color, just across the river from slave plantations in Missouri, could possess the mighty Sharps Carbine.
The Kansas-Nebraska Act, which gave those territories their own right to decide whether to be pro-slave or not, fractured the Whig Party in two, giving rise to the birth of the Republican Party. United States admitted Kansas as a state on January 29, 1861. The Congressional legislative balance between free and slave states then forever tilted toward liberty. On Friday, April 12, 1861, at 4:30 a.m., Confederate batteries opened fire on Ft. Sumpter.
By 1856, Smith & Wesson began to manufacture the Model 1 that used a bored through revolver housing and a metal jacketed cartridge. That machine makes slavery impossible. The fight between the states, as I see it, was between entrenched economic interests that could not resolve who was a “person” who could keep and bear increasingly less expensive and more effective firearms. The Civil War was fought over gun control.