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“Proven” Safety Regulations: Massachusetts 1805 Proving Law As Historical Analogue for Modern Gun Safety Laws

By Billy Clark. Full Text.

Concerned by the public health threats posed by certain firearms, the Massachusetts legislature enacts a law to set safety standards for firearms in the Commonwealth. Firearm dealers across the State, including some of the leading manufacturers of the day, not only follow the law’s safety standards, but they themselves also take on the role of public officers enforcing and carrying out the law’s terms. In so doing, Massachusetts carries on a long historical tradition of government and private businesses working together to ensure that the public is protected from dangerous weapons.

This example is not drawn from the headlines of today, but from the historical records of the early nineteenth century. In 1805, Massachusetts enacted a firearm “proving” law, which required that muskets and pistols manufactured in Massachusetts meet certain standards and that they be tested by inspectors, or “provers,” of firearms. Once these firearms had been tested us- ing the “proving” process, the “prover” would mark the weapon with a stamp, which would show that the firearm had met the State’s safety standards.

Like other historical gun laws, the 1805 Massachusetts law has gained surprisingly modern significance in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in New York State Rifle & Pistol Association, Inc. v. Bruen (NYSRPA v. Bruen). In Bruen, the Court adopted a “text-and-history” approach for evaluating Second Amendment challenges in which the government must affirmatively invoke the historical tradition of firearms regulations to defend modern gun violence prevention measures. Bruen has led historians, scholars, and legal advocates to scour historical records searching for any and all relevantly similar firearms laws from throughout American history. Some modern courts post-Bruen have looked to the 1805 Massachusetts law as a possible historical analogue for several different modern gun violence prevention laws.

This Essay provides additional historical context to the 1805 law, looking at the “how” and the “why” behind the law. This Essay discusses how the law operated and came to be, and then analyzes why the law was enacted, including why the law included an exception for the Springfield Armory, one of the largest manufacturers of firearms in both Massachusetts and the United States at the time. The 1805 Massachusetts proving law is an important example of early American governments placing regulations on the commercial sale and manufacture of firearms that serves as a relatively similar analogue to a host of modern gun violence prevention measures, including modern handgun safety standards, serialization requirements, and ghost gun laws.