A new resource on the legal history of violence in the United States

Banner Repsoitory of Historical Guin law - Duke University

At least on a few occasions even historians who try to remain detached from contemporary matters cannot escape from them. A blog dealing with law and history inevitably will touch major themes such as injustice, inequality, violence and slavery, things that are still present in our world, and are definitively not only history. The four themes mentioned here set a challenge to anyone thinking and writing. The subject of violence I have chosen for this post does not come completely unexpected. This month I read a notice about a new scholarly resource on the history of legislation about arms in the United States. Joseph Blocher and Darrell Miller (Duke University School of Law) have created a repository of historical gun laws. I will discuss here its contents and functions. By looking briefly at some contemporary resources on violence I will not shut out the present here entirely.

Finding laws

Blocher and Miller explain the way they compiled the information for their repository quite clearly. The first thing to notice is that the database does not contain the latest laws, statutes and other regulations. You will find English laws starting in the Middle Ages up to 1776, American legislation for the colonial period from 1607 to 1791, the year the American constitution was ratified, laws around the Fourteenth Amendment, and legislation up to the National Firearms Act of 1934. Colonial legislation has been limited to legislation in later American states. The legislation entered into the repository has been taken from regular resources such as well-known licensed databases on legislation by the Congress and state statutes, the Making of Modern Law, Yale Law School’s Avalon project and more general sources. A search for items mentioning the word gun was performed for the Session Laws. In the Making of Modern Law Blocher and Miller searched for the words gun(s), rifle(s) and pistol(s). The editors decided not to include every local regulation for every period. Sometimes a statute merely repeats earlier legal enactments. The spelling of older texts has been adjusted. On the blog of Duke Law School Blocher and Miller told on April 4, 2018 more about their project which contains currently some 1,500 items. They propose to add continuously newly discovered statutes, to expand the information for the colonial period, and of course they will correct factual errors.

Instead of creating at the outset a database with complete coverage of all possible legislation the two scholars at Duke did very sensible aim to deliver a set of materials which cover a most substantial period with due attention to colonial history. In the repository you can search at will using the free text field, and set filters for seventeen particular themes, for example militia regulations, hunting, manufacturing, sensitive places and times, race and slavery, and involvement of minors. It is possible to limit your search to specific years, and you can search for English law and for legislation from one or more states. The repository gives the texts of provisions, labelled with the usual current legal reference. A link to the sources used is also given. Thus you will find an act about the storage of weapons enacted on March 24, 1629 by the state Virginia with the reference 1629 Va. Acts 151, Acts of March 24, 1629, Act 5, and in this case a link to a digitized version in the Internet Archive of The statutes at large, being a collection of all the law of Virginia (…) (New York,1823). This statute at page 151 of the edition dealt with potash and nitre (saltpeter), vital ingredients for gunpowder.

The repository has six statutes on storage between 1607 and 1776, and eight from 1776 to 1791, and you will find 54 statutes on this subject from 1791 to 1861. Storage is the subject of 191 statutes in this database. I would not have labelled a statute of king Alfred from 890, the oldest law in the repository, about the way one has to carry a spear under storage, but under carrying weapons. The source used for this law is not given. In the edition of F. Liebermann, Die Gesetze der Angelsachsen (3 vol., Halle, 1903-1916) it is probably the statute no. 33 (I, 68-71). Of course this is only a detail, and one that can be quickly adjusted. The possibility of classifying statutes under two labels is certainly a matter needing attention. However, the important thing is that this repository enables you to pose questions about a particular genre of gun laws with a more than reasonable chance to find sufficient coverage. Thanks to the project Early English Laws I could quickly search for this medieval law.

At this point it becomes interesting, too, how we encounter laws with a relation to racial matters in the Duke repository. I will not spoil here your own curiosity by giving here a number of results for all subjects. For race and slavery you will find an overall total of 38 results. Here I cannot help thinking about Hein’s massive digital collection Slavery in America and the World where you can certainly find more or at least make valuable comparisons of the coverage. In 2016 I have discussed here at length some of its flaws and omissions, but it is a very valuable collection. Some quick searches among slavery statutes brought me already dozens of statutes which seem relevant for comparisons. Minors and other persons deemed irresponsible occur in 67 results in the Duke repository. Apart from statutes and regulations you will see also references to state constitutions and codes of law.

From the past to the present

It is not a regular thing to encounter a database with matters from the ninth to the early twentieth century. One of the compliments you must make to Blocher and Miller is that the quality of the repository makes one thirst for a sequel into the present. I suppose the editors reckon with the ability to find relevant legislation quickly, using either the licensed databases accessible at American law schools and elsewhere in research libraries, or the marvellous sets of digitized legal materials put online by the Law Library of the Library of Congress, together with links to other resources in open access. If you want to find online more about American legal history you can benefit from Legal History on the Web, the portal site of the Triangle Legal History Seminar at Duke University, for Blocher and Miller perhaps too obvious to mention!

It is impossible to ignore the current turmoil and debate about violence and gun laws in the United States. It would mean ignoring an elephant in the room. I was surprised the ever vigilant team of the Legal History Blog had not yet written something about the Duke repository. Maybe other recent news from Duke University was considered more pressing. The urgency of the situation around the use, abuse and possession of arms is clear to me, but here I can and will not offer my thoughts about possible remedies. For further information you can consult online websites such as the Gun Violence Archive, the Mass Shooting Tracker based on crowdsourcing, and Mass Shootings in America of the Stanford Geospatial Center. Projects such as Every Town for Gun Safety and The Trace bring news and background information concerning shootings, gun related violence, gun possession and gun laws in a larger context. At Mother Jones you can find a dataset concerning mass shootings in the United States between 1982 and 2018. SafeHome has an online dossier Gun Laws vs. Gun Deaths with maps showing the differences between American states.

Judicial statistics can generally be found at the website of the Bureau of Justice Statistics. Its page on weapon use will be at the focus of your attention. Those with access at a subscribing institutions can use the online edition of the Historical Statistics of the United States, where you can buy also two-day access to individual parts of it, or you can use the open access version of Historical Statistics of United States, Colonial Times to 1970 provided by the United States Census Bureau which brings you also to statistics for individual states. For statistical comparisons between countries one might start at the Swedish portal for historical statistics with as its core data for 21 countries.

If I had decided to follow here the path of historical statistics I would have added a second post. I am well aware more can be said, and that there are probably other online entrances to this kind of data, but I had rather not hide the main line of this contribution. The shooting at the Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida on February 14, 2018 led to massive protests. In my view the database created by Blocher and Miller is one of the things helping to reflect on the development of law and justice concerning weapons in the history of the United States. They perform a service to the public. Hopefully others, and in particular law schools, lawyers and other legal scholars are willing, too, to consider what difference they themselves can make by studying the impact of visible and hidden violence, and how laws, statutes and other regulations work and worked to achieve justice for the victims and anyone hurt by violence. Its role in American history and in legal history needs study in all its aspects.

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