The American Tradition of Self-Made Arms
Joseph G.S. Greenlee, The American Tradition of Self-Made Arms, 54 St. Mary's L.J. 35 (2023)
49 Pages Posted: 18 Nov 2021 Last revised: 24 Jan 2023
Date Written: November 10, 2021
Since the earliest colonial days, Americans have been busily manufacturing and repairing arms. In the colonies, the ability to defend one’s home and community, hunt, fight wars, and ultimately win American independence depended largely on the ability to produce arms. For the newly independent nation, arms production was critical to repel invasions and insurrections, and eventually, to western expansion. The skill was always valued and in demand, and many Americans made their own arms rather than depend on others.
Americans continued producing their own arms in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, leading to some of the greatest technological breakthroughs in the history of firearms and ammunition. The freedom to build personal arms enabled innovations that allowed Americans to better defend themselves and their country than ever before.
Meanwhile, restrictions on self-made arms have been rare throughout American history. All restrictions on arms built for personal use have emerged within the last decade, and from only a few states. While still uncommon, legislatures are increasingly targeting homemade arms due to the growing popularity of unfinished receivers and 3D-printed firearms. They worry that prohibited persons will evade legal barriers to acquiring firearms by using these resources to build arms themselves. Whether such restrictions are constitutional depends on whether the Second Amendment was originally understood as protecting self-made arms, and whether the regulations are consistent with America’s tradition of firearm regulation.
Part I of this article examines Supreme Court precedent. Section A briefly explains the Court’s approach to interpreting the Second Amendment. Section B identifies which arms the Second Amendment protects. And Section C considers whether the Second Amendment includes the activity of acquiring arms.
Part II explores the tradition of building and repairing arms in American history. Section A explains why the knowledge for building arms was essential in colonial America. Section B highlights the arms shortages
throughout the Revolutionary War and how domestic arms production filled the void. And Section C identifies important self-made arms in early American history.
Part III explains how many of the most important innovations in firearms and ammunition were inspired by self-made arms, including the wheellock mechanism, percussion ignition, detachable box magazines, and classic firearms such as the Henry Rifle, M1 Garand, and AR-15.
Part IV covers the history of regulations on arms built for personal use, which are uncommon and of recent vintage.
In conclusion, this article finds that the tradition of building arms for personal use is deeply rooted in American history, and that there is no tradition of regulating self-built arms. Moreover, under Supreme Court precedent, common arms are constitutionally protected regardless of how they are acquired. Thus, the Second Amendment protects an arm that is self-built if that type of arm is commonly possessed.
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