The Right to Carry Concealed Guns Debate: Pretty Similar in 1872 and in 2010

An excerpt from Debates of the [1872] Convention to Amend the Constitution of Pennsylvania (some paragraph breaks added). MacVeagh, incidentally, would nine years later briefly serve as U.S. Attorney General; Dallas would later serve as a judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit:

Mr. Struthers. I move that the Convention go into committee of the whole, for the purpose of specific amendment, by inserting in the twenty-first section, after the word “citizens,” in the first line, the word “openly,” so as to read: “The right of the citizens openly to bear arms in defence of themselves and the State, shall not be questioned.[”] …

Mr. MacVeagh. For one, I shall vote against the proposition. I[n] the first place, I think the present Constitution is perfectly explicit and satisfactory on this subject; and in the second place, I have never been able to understand why a man might not be under the necessity of protecting himself by carrying a weapon of defence.

Suppose an epidemic of garroting breaks out in the city of Philadelphia, as it did in the city of London a very few years ago; to tell me that I am to walk the streets of this city at night without any protection whatever from ruffians, is to state something to which I will never agree. Suppose I may be required, as I have been on different occasions, coming from the city of Washington upon a delayed train, to walk at half-past one or at two o’clock in the morning from the depot at Broad and Prime streets, and have my steps dogged all the way to the hotel, am I to have no possible protection?

I understand that among other things that cannot be taken from a man, is the privilege he has to defend his life and to protect himself. Of course he is answerable to the fullest extent for the use of it, and your law against carrying concealed weapons does not interfere with the habit among the dangerous classes. But there are periods in every community, periods of excitement, when it may be necessary for a man to say in his own behalf, “Say what your please and do what you please, but you must not beat or maltreat me,” and with all the inequalities of physical condition that exist, it is the very worst thing in the world to say that if a man of my condition offends a man like Judge Woodward, he is to take a severe beating whenever his enemy chooses to inflict it. I do not believe in it. I believe in the right of self-defence of the weak against the strong, and I do not propose to allow any man to maltreat me at his pleasure, as long as there are any weapons of defence to be had by which I can equalize any strength with his….

Mr. Beebe. I trust the Convention will not go into committee of the whole for the purpose of putting in this amendment. For more than four years in the oil regions of Pennsylvania, during the excitement of speculation and during the war, no man’s life would have been safe had it not been well understood that every man carried concealed weapons. No man had any business to be there without them. Highway robbery even was best prevented by the assailed getting frequently the advantage of the first shot.

Thieves and murderers never would and never do regard any law of this kind, and the revolver under such circumstances is the best conservator of the public peace in the hands of law-abiding men. No man desires to be in the position of being assailed by a lot of drunken bullies who are reckless of anything they may do unless restrained by fear.

I agree with the gentleman from Dauphin that there are circumstances where a man has the right and must have that right for protection of himself, unless he expects to be knocked down and beaten by a dozen drunken bummers who may be out upon a raid, and who may inflict upon him any violence or any base practices by which they may desire to humiliate or degrade him….

Mr. Dallas. I am in favor of the amendment for the consideration of which it is proposed that we shall now go into committee of the whole…. [The amendment] would leave it to the Legislature to pass or not, as it might deem best, such laws as have heretofore been enacted to prevent the carrying of concealed deadly weapons.

If in the county of Venango, for instance, there exists the condition of lawlessness to which the gentleman from that county has referred, and the constituted authorities there are not able to suppress it, and to protect peaceable citizens, then it certainly would be right that the Legislature should pass no law applicable to that section, to punish to carrying of weapons, even though concealed, by peaceful citizens. There would be nothing in this section, even if amended as proposed, in the nature of a mandate to the Legislature, and the section itself would not contain a single word that could be construed to prohibit citizens from carrying arms in any manner they might see fit….

I confess I do not understand that force of the argument of the gentleman from Dauphin. He does not want the amendment adopted because he says that being himself slight of stature but strong of nerve, he should not be deprived of the equality with greater physical foree, which the possession of a pistol might secure to him. Where the Legislature may recognize the existence in any part of the State of a condition of affairs making it proper for a man to carry a pistol, they would be at liberty to say so under this amendment: but whatever may be true of the county of Venango, here in this well regulated city of Philadelphia I do not believe that the carrying of concealed deadly weapons in necessary for the protection of orderly people….

Mr. Ewing. Have there not been repeated occasions within the past ten years when it has been unsafe for people to go abroad in Philadelphia upon the public streets without carrying deadly weapons?

Mr. Dallas. I think not, to the extent which the question implies. Here, as in every other large city, men have been assaulted and robbed on the street; but we are speaking now not of isolated cases, but of a state of society that would warrant peaceable citizens generally in arming themselves for the protection of the lives and property. No such state of society exists in Philadelphia; and why, let me ask, should not the Legislature be permitted to say that concealed deadly weapons shall not be carried here, or that the person who carries them shall be punishable for it, and that when they do say so, the constitutionality of their act shall be beyond question?

But the purpose of such laws is not to prevent peaceable citizens from protecting themselves from the superior muscular power of ruffians, but to prevent the ruffians from arming themselves against peaceable citizens. The gentleman has no right to ask that he may exercise a power outside of the law to protect himself, when the law itself is sufficient for his protection.

That very law which he complains of is made for him and not against him; and I appeal even to those gentleman who think that there should be no law against carrying concealed deadly weapons to vote for this amendment, for the reason that there is nothing in it which would compel the Legislature to enact such a law. It would leave the whole subject to the representatives of the people, and its only purpose is to make clear a constitutional provision in regard to which there has been some conflict of opinion….

The yeas and nays were taken and were as follow, viz: [Yeas 23, Nays 54.] So the motion was rejected.

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