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Robert J. Spitzer Headshot

Upset About a Census of People? How About a Census of Guns?

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You've heard the census naysayers, the Michelle Bachmanns, the Glenn Becks, the Tea Party movement activists who are calling for a "partial boycott" that urges people to only report the number of persons in their households. Some are calling for an outright boycott. The commonly cited reasons coalesce around charges that the modern federal count is an unnecessary, unwarranted, and dangerous invasion of privacy that strays from our nation's founding practices. Libertarian Party Chairman William Redpath, for example, charges that the census is an attempt by the government to exercise "control over the lives and money of the American people."

But these anti-government types who wax nostalgic for America as it existed in its early decades can't even get their history right. After all, the nation's first census in 1790 asked ten questions, like this year's census, and the list of general census questions grew throughout the 19th century. By 1930, the census canvas asked more than thirty questions, and this was two years before the country elected that closet-socialist Franklin Roosevelt.

Imagine the outcry if the government did today what it did early in the country's history: conduct a census of arms among the general population. In the days when national defense needs rested heavily with citizen militias, it was important for the government to know who owned how many guns, and in what condition. While procedures varied around the country, the counting generally occurred by militia officers or constables going door-to-door in their local districts, inquiring not only about the number of firearms, but their conditions (firearms were mostly made of iron at the time, so they often broke down or rusted, rendering them inoperable; generally, even broken weapons were counted in the totals).

The nation's first Secretary of War, Henry Knox, ordered several nationwide counts of guns during George Washington's presidency. During Thomas Jefferson's administration, a more ambitious and careful national count was launched by War Secretary Henry Dearborn in 1803, covering arms held both publicly and privately. The result showed that about 45 percent of militia-eligible men (roughly between the ages of 18-45) had arms, or about 24 percent of adult white males. President James Madison's Secretary of War, William Eustis, reported similar numbers in 1810. Censuses of firearms continued to be conducted sporadically up until the Civil War.

It's no small irony that a government census of population now arouses such ire, when counting not only people but guns was entirely unexceptional early in our nation's history, and that the only militias that make news today are the government-hating pseudo private "militias," some of whom were arrested last week by the FBI for plotting to kill police and instigate rebellion against the government.

Spitzer's recent books include The Politics of Gun Control (4th ed. 2008), Saving the Constitution from Lawyers (2008), and Gun Control: A Documentary and Reference Guide (2009)