No, The Second Amendment Did Not Prohibit Cannon Ownership in the Early Republic

Jonathan Turley

President Joe Biden returned this week to his claim that the Second Amendment was originally understood and applied to ban the private ownership of cannons. It is not just an embarrassing repetition of a false claim but threatens to reduce his own gun control measures to little more than cannon fodder on a historical perspective.

President Biden’s repeated accounts of his Amtrak conductortruck driving past, and other stories have long been the subject of jokes in Washington. However, those stories (like his showdown with a “bad dude” named Corn Pop) can become an almost harmless signature of a president who seems to implant permanent memories in his own head. However, this is different. Biden has repeatedly defended his plans for banning certain weapon types based on his false understanding of the scope and history of the Second Amendment.

Ironically, in continuing to make the same false argument on cannons, President Biden delivers a blow below the waterline of his own argument for gun control.

Previously, Biden declared:

“And I might add: The Second Amendment, from the day it was passed, limited the type of people who could own a gun and what type of weapon you could own. You couldn’t buy a cannon.”

This week, President Biden repeated a false claim that many of us have corrected in the past.

When he was announcing new rules for so-called “ghost guns” and other measures, President Biden renewed his false claim that early Americans could not buy a cannon.

“By the way — it’s going to sound bizarre — I support the Second Amendment. But from the very beginning the Second Amendment didn’t say you could own any gun you want, as big as you want. You couldn’t buy a cannon, when in fact the Second Amendment passed.”

It does sound bizarre because it is factually and legally untrue. I have received calls for media for years about this claim and it does not improve by repetition. Even the Washington Post has declared Biden’s understanding of the Second Amendment to be false.

There were no federal laws barring cannon ownership when the Second Amendment was enacted. Gun laws remained local matters and I do not know of any bans on cannons or other gun types until much later in our history.  Early local laws did control concealed weapons, though concealed cannons were not part of those ordinances.

Indeed, the Constitution itself supports private cannon ownership in the case of privateers.  Article 1, Section 8, Clause 11 allows Congress to “grant Letters of Marque and Reprisal.”  That allowed private parties to privateer on the high seas with . . . cannons. (Recently some members of Congress wanted to issues such letters of Marque again to enlist privateers in the fight against Russia)i.

What is most striking about this implanted memory is that it actually works against the President’s arguments. Unlike the conversations with a dead man or driving some eighteen wheeler, the falsity of the story highlights the constitutional challenge to his calls to outlaw assault weapons or high-capacity magazines.

The fact is that the Second Amendment was not viewed or used as a basis for banning certain weapon types. That does not mean that it cannot be interpreted to allow for such prohibition, but historically it was not used to do so in the early Republic.  Most importantly, it was not until much later that the federal government even started to regulate private ownership, sale or possession of weapons.

It is like the Corn Pop story not only proving false, but Corn Pop turning out to be a local anti-violence social worker. The fact that the Second Amendment was not used by Congress to ban certain weapons works against Biden’s argument that he is advancing on the original understanding of the Second Amendment. The historical practice actually supports the opposite point that the Second Amendment was not used for such bans and there is no evidence of a general acceptance of the broad interpretation given by the President. There is not a dispositive argument for gun rights advocates but the President’s continued use of the false argument hardly improves the argument for gun control.

We all have false memories or “big fish stories.” Indeed, it can be charming in the right context. However, this is a story being used to limit the scope of a constitutional amendment. While I disagree with the “militia” theory of the Second Amendment, there are good-faith arguments for gun controls under the Amendment. Those arguments will not be improved through the revision of our constitutional history in a more convenient light.

Arguing such finer points of constitutional law is not nearly as effective as claiming that this question was resolved in 1791. Yet, Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. (the father of the famed jurist) once said “the sound of a kiss is not so loud as that of a cannon, but its echo lasts a great deal longer.” This is an echo that seems to continue to ricochet in the mind of President Biden.

Jonathan Turley

10 thoughts on “No, The Second Amendment Did Not Prohibit Cannon Ownership in the Early Republic

  1. Major Hint: Article 1, Section 8, of the United States Constitution.
    2nd Major Hint: American Letter of Marque, 1812
    The Letter below is an example of an American letter of marque that was issued in the War of 1812 to Captain of the Prince of Neufchatel, comprising 18 guns (a.k.a. canon’s) and 129 men, by James Madison, President of the United States of America. This letter is archived in the Public Record Office in Richmond, Surrey in the UK (High Court of Admiralty HCA 32/1342.)

    Letter of Marque carried by Captain Millin of the American privateer Prince of Neufchatel during the War of 1812.
    James Madison, {4th} President of the United States of America,
    To all who shall see these presents, Greeting:
    BE IT KNOWN, That in pursuance of an act of congress, passed on the 26th day of June one thousand eight hundred and twelve, I have Commissioned, and by these presents do commission, the private armed Brig called the Prince Neufchatel of the burden of three hundred & Nineteen tons, or thereabouts, owned by John Ordronaux & Peter E. Trevall of the City & State of New York and Joseph Beylle of Philadelphia in the State of Pennsylvania Mounting eighteen carriage guns, and navigated by one hundred & twenty nine men, hereby authorizing Nicholas Millin captain, and William Stetson lieutenant of the said Brig and the other officers and crew thereof, to subdue, seize, and take any armed or unarmed British vessel, public or private, which shall be found within the jurisdictional limits of the United States, or elsewhere on the high seas, or within the waters of the British dominions, and such captured vessel, with her apparel, guns, and appertenances, and the goods or effects which shall be found on board the same, together with all the british persons and others who shall be found acting on board, to bring within some port of the United States; and also to retake any vessel, goods, and effects of the people of the United States, which may have been captured by any British armed vessel, in order that proceedings may be had concerning such capture or recapture in due form of law, and as to right and justice shall appertain. The said Nicholas Millin is further authorized to detain, seize, and take all vessels and effects, to whomsoever belonging, which shall be liabel thereto according to the law of nations and the rights of the United States as a power at war, and to bring the same within some port of the United States, in order that due proceedings may be had thereon. This commission to continue in force during the pleasure of the president of the United States for the time being.
    GIVEN under my hand and seal of the United States of America, at the City of Washington, the twelfth day of December in the year of our Lord, one thousand eight hundred and fourteen and of the independence of the said states the thirty ninth.
    BY THE PRESIDENT James Madison
    Jas. Monroe, Secretary of State.

  2. ‘the Second Amendment was originally understood and applied to ban the private ownership of cannons.’

    Anyone that does not comprehend the exact meaning of our Law should never see public office.

    1. I love this nutshell, EOTS. To me, it looks even better in quotes and with all caps:

      “EVERY WEAPON KNOWN TO MAN IS WHAT MY BILL OF RIGHTS SUPPORTS.”

      T-shirt?

      🙂

      .

    1. So you think it’s safer for the international corporate mafia to be the only ones having bio weapons? Do you trust them more than your neighbor?
      A cannon is lawful, always has been, always will be, which I will cram home for the 100,000th time on my noon broadcast.

  3. I think now I shall build a cannon! Since it help further our cause BOR’s!!! How do you stop a chemtrail jet???? You meet em on the runway!!!!

  4. What no one seems to think/know what the second law of the land says, simply, the People have the only right to arms, the government (aka public servants) have no rights or authorizations to arms while in the duty of the People,,,

    1. Oh we know, Joe. The problem is a lack of f-king guts to enforce the second part of your statement with the first.

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