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Joe Biden says in a BBC snippet that

the Second Amendment, from the day it was passed, limited the type of people that could own a gun and what type of weapon you could own. You couldn't buy a cannon.

Is that really so? Did the 2nd Amendment really limit the purchase of cannons from the day it was passed? I'm aware that much later legislation like the 1934 National Firearms Act substantially limited the types of weapons that could be purchased and this legislation was found constitutional by the US Supreme Court. But was the purchase of cannons really limited around the time the (or from the day) the 2nd Amendment was passed?

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    This is probably relevant: history.stackexchange.com/questions/28701/…
    – JimmyJames
    Jun 24 at 15:15
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    I'm under the impression the use of the word "arms" is very different from "guns" in 1776. Biden's argument could be based on this ancient semantic difference.
    – fredsbend
    Jun 24 at 16:48
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    Removed comments that were trying to rehash the last hundred years of Second Amendment debate. Take it to Law.SE.
    – Oddthinking
    Jun 25 at 6:40
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    "Arms" has never been clearly defined by Congress or the courts.
    – Wastrel
    Jun 25 at 13:16
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    Not sure how to turn this into an answer but it seems the founders had very different picture of gun control than we did. Seems that they did a lot of disarmament of the population. theconversation.com/…
    – Joe W
    Jun 25 at 13:17
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Did the 2nd Amendment really limit the purchase of cannons from the day it was passed?

No. The 2nd Amendment protects "the right of the people to keep and bear arms" and does not single out cannons or any other weapon individually.


The Second Amendment states simply (.gov site)

A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms shall not be infringed.

and does not mention anything about cannons specifically (e.g. that the people do not have the right to keep cannons).


PolitiFact looked into Biden's statement and concluded it was false. They mentioned documented examples of privateers, who are individuals, owning cannons during the American Revolutionary War.

Here's a relevant snippet:

  • The Biden campaign didn’t offer evidence to support his statement, and historians of the period are dubious laws against private cannon ownership existed.

  • There are documented instances of privateers, or privately owned vessels that legally attacked enemy ships during wartime, setting sail with cannons during the period.

[...]

But the Biden campaign was unable to point to a specific law. "The vice president's point is that to help end the tragic epidemic of mass shootings that is taking so many American lives, we need to ban weapons of war from our streets," the campaign told PolitiFact.

Historians say they are doubtful that there were laws to bar individual ownership of cannons during the Revolutionary War period.

"It seems highly unlikely that there were restrictions on the private ownership" of cannons, said Julie Anne Sweet, a historian and director of military studies at Baylor University.

[...]

The 1899 book "A History of American Privateers" by Edgar Stanton Maclay notes several cases in which privateers during the Revolutionary War set sail using cannons.


This is my guess as to how the claim started appearing. The claim has been circulating for at least 8 years (without a connection to Biden).

In the 1980 case State v. Kessler, this is what the Oregon Supreme Court wrote of the term "arms" when trying to interpret the intention of the writers of the Oregon Constitution (and, indirectly, the Indiana Constitution):

The term "arms" was not limited to firearms, but included several handcarried weapons commonly used for defense. The term "arms" would not have included cannon or other heavy ordnance not kept by militiamen or private citizens. (from Justia)

It was apparently a point of discussion whether states could restrict gun rights more than the US federal government as the 2nd Amendment prevents the federal government from infringing on this right, but does not necessarily prevent the state from doing so as well (explicitly at least). This essay on congress.gov goes into detail on the issue. In the present day (only recently in 2010), the Second Amendment has been determined to apply to states.

And, more importantly, because the District of Columbia is a federal enclave, the Court did not have occasion to address whether it would reconsider its prior decisions that the Second Amendment does not apply to the states. The latter issue was addressed in McDonald v. Chicago [a 2010 Supreme Court case], where a plurality of the Court, overturning prior precedent, found that the Second Amendment is incorporated through the Fourteenth Amendment and is thus enforceable against the states.

The first sentence of the essay sums up the source of the confusion well.

For over 200 years, despite extensive debate and much legislative action with respect to regulation of the purchase, possession, and transportation of firearms, as well as proposals to substantially curtail ownership of firearms, there was no definitive resolution by the courts of just what right the Second Amendment protects.

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  • I've created a chat for you all to continue your discussion. Thank you for keeping it polite and respectful thus far.
    – fredsbend
    Jun 25 at 15:15
  • yeah, I've heard before that the 2nd doesn't protect the right to own crew served weapons but the text doesn't mention those. Reasoning tends to be "the 2nd amendment is a personal right therefore it doesn't cover weapons that require multiple people to use" but IMO (but I'm no constitutional scholar) that's a stretch.
    – jwenting
    Jun 29 at 7:43
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Muzzle-loading, black-powder firearms firing solid shot, including cannons, such as the ones used in the US War of Independence and Civil war have never really been subjected to any regulations.

You buy one today, with no license(or any other checks) required, from companies that sell antiques or make functional replicas for enthusiasts e.g: For example, this ironworks sell a full-scale, fully-functional replica of the model 1841 US army field gun, that was the most commonly used cannon in the Civil War.

Similarly, this auction site sold a working replica of a black-powder Gatling gun, with the minimum possible background check.

At the time of the Second Amendment it was expected for civilian ships to carry at least some cannons for protection from pirates who were still a thing and in fact, a new cannon type(https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carronade) was developed for civilian use first, before being adopted by various militaries. In the 19th century American Filibusters could equip their forces as well as any army in the world, with no government oversight. Before the National Firearms Act of 1934(https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/National_Firearms_Act), it was pretty much anything goes and muzzle loaders were excluded from it, because they were obsolete by that time:

Muzzle-loading firearms are exempt from the Act (as they are defined as "antique firearms" and are not considered "firearms" under either the GCA or the NFA). Thus, though common muzzle-loading hunting rifles are available in calibers over 0.50 inch, they are not regulated as destructive devices. Muzzle-loading cannon are similarly exempt since the law makes no distinction about the size of muzzle-loading weapons. Thus it is legal for a civilian to build muzzle-loading rifles, pistols, cannon, and mortars with no paperwork.

Even now, you can buy a Bofors anti-aircraft 40mm cannon-machine gun. with an NFA check and tax stamp(If anyone is confused by the name, FPS Russia is an American gun Youtuber, who puts on a Russian act as part of his persona.

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  • How about a T-55 AM2 tank or a SA-6A/3M9 missile? (deactivated, sadly)
    – pipe
    Jun 24 at 19:34
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    Please provide some references to support your claims. You need to reference that they have never been subject to regulation, that "anything went" before 1934, that civilian ships were expected to carry cannons, the filibusters were legally armed, and that you can buy a Bofors cannon-machine gun.
    – Oddthinking
    Jun 25 at 6:36
  • @Oddthinking with regard to anything going before 1934, how could there be references for this? How do you prove a negative? As for buying a Bofors cannon, here's one that sold at auction: rockislandauction.com/detail/74/1422/…
    – Ryan_L
    Jun 25 at 15:36
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    @Ryan_L: 1) the burden is on the OP to provide evidence for what they are claiming. That's our whole reason for being here and not on Yahoo Answers, for example. 2) Reference someone making the claim who has studied the issue in the period. If an expert has done a serious search for such a law, and concluded there is none, that is evidence. 3) If that auction was a reference, it should be added to the answer, but I don't think that it shows there are no legal constraints on the sale.
    – Oddthinking
    Jun 25 at 17:53
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    John Hancock owned his own ships and were manned with canons.
    – paulj
    Jun 25 at 19:24
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Did the 2nd Amendment limit the purchase of cannons from the day it was passed?

No - but for a completely different reason than the other answers provide. The second amendment does not limit what you can buy - it limits what laws congress can pass about what guns you can buy.

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    Fair point, but the title question and the question body (and claim from Biden) don't quite match. You do correctly address the title question, but Biden specifically claimed, not that the Second Amendment prohibited owning cannons, but rather just that there was a restriction against owning them (with the implication being that such a restriction would not have violated the 2nd Amendment.) Of course, all of the above are false, as both you and the other answers have described.
    – reirab
    Jun 24 at 23:40
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    A pedantic and semantic argument, ie, not useful. Pretty close to not even answering the question.
    – fredsbend
    Jun 25 at 15:20
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    @fredsbend You need to understand why the constitution was created and then you would understand why this is the answer.
    – paulj
    Jun 25 at 19:25
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    @fredsbend@reirab There is nothing pedantic about this answer. It explains from first principles why the answer must be a fat no, and doesn't rely on all muddled facts the other answers do. Unless Congress went ahead and adopted a restriction on cannon purchases the same day the BoR was adopted, there is nothing more to say.
    – Hasse1987
    Jun 25 at 23:58
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    @paulj It doesn't take a sophisticated understanding of the Constitution to read the claim in the question accordingly. Biden's claim is that you couldn't own certain weapons at that time. Taking it literally (based on his old man word salad) is pedantic and not helpful. It's like this is the answer to a hokey trick question. Trick questions are amusing, but their answers tell you nothing.
    – fredsbend
    Jun 26 at 4:16
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In 1790 it was understood that the Federal government couldn't limit your purchase of anything from within your own state, because the Constitution only gives it the power "to regulate Commerce with foreign Nations, and among the several States, and with the Indian Tribes". For 100 years the "among the several States" clause was used to enforce freedom of movement and to prevent the states from discriminating against one another or against outside countries; it was only between the end of 19th century, with railroads becoming a major factor, and the middle of the 20th century, that a new interpretation became dominant, allowing Congress to regulate intrastate commerce on the basis of its potential impact on interstate commerce. It was also at this time that the first "federal agencies" with regulatory power were created.

So, any restrictions that did exist would have to be at the state level. The question "Prior to [1934] were there weapons regulations at the state level anywhere in the US?" is one of the questions asked here, and although the answers there are a bit hairy and not all address that facet of the question, I will note that none of them come up with an affirmative example of a state banning private possession of cannons prior to 1934, or even assert that they did. Personally I find it unlikely that any state legislature in the late 18th or early 19th century would have had any reason to do so.

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    I see a big hole in your argument. If the federal government couldn't limit your purchase of anything from within your own state then the 2nd amendment was meaningless when enacted. It prohibited congress from doing something that you say it couldn't do anyway. The commerce clause is not the only relevant enumerated power "To provide for organizing, arming, and disciplining, the Militia" That could have been used to regulate weapons. Jun 26 at 19:07
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    @GeorgeWhite that argument could have been made, but it never was. In any case it's not quite correct for a few reasons — the second amendment would protect against, for instance, a federal law against crossing state lines while bearing a weapon, which otherwise might be in the reach of the commerce clause.
    – hobbs
    Jun 26 at 21:32
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    @GeorgeWhite and of course later (and not much later) this was "fixed" by amendments that effectively made the US constitution in most cases supercede state constitutions. IOW if the state constitution were to contradict the US constitution it'd be invalid.
    – jwenting
    Jun 29 at 7:49
  • @jwenting The Supremacy Clause was in the original U.S. Constitution, not an amendment. I think what you're thinking of is that the Bill of Rights originally only placed any limits on the powers of the federal government, not the state governments, but was later incorporated on the state governments via the 14th Amendment.
    – reirab
    Jul 3 at 23:50

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