Miniseries, Part I – A Brief Overview of Laws Addressing Nonresidents and Aliens

[Ed. Note: As we discussed here, this post is part of a three-part series on gun laws in the Center’s Repository of Historical Gun Laws, written by Center research assistant Catie Carberry. This post, like the Repository, is exemplary and not exhaustive.]

Are laws banning aliens from keeping guns a “post-World War I phenomenon?”

There are currently four laws in the Repository that address nonresidents before the Revolutionary War, and none explicitly bar possession. The first is from 1633 in Massachusetts. It barred all persons from selling or giving guns, gunpowder, bullets, shot, or lead “to any Indian whatsoever, or to any person inhabiting out of this jurisdiction.” The other three laws, which came out of Connecticut, Pennsylvania, and New York, banned the sale of the same without a license.

The last of these laws, from New York, was enacted in 1680. As of right now, another law concerning nonresidents or aliens does not appear on the Repository until 1899.

That law begins a flurry of regulations concerning aliens on the Repository, a flurry which suggests increasing regulation over time. The laws that immediately follow, such as those out of New Jersey in 1902, Pennsylvania in 1903, and Utah in 1905, required aliens and nonresidents to purchase a hunting license before hunting with a gun. A few years later, some states enacted laws that required aliens to obtain a general firearm license. Unlike the hunting licenses, which only seem to address using guns while hunting, these laws address the general carrying and possession of firearms.

Some of them, including one from Montana in 1913 (which notably had an exception for aliens who owned more than 160 acres of land) and one from Wyoming in 1915, required only the payment of money for a license. Others required aliens to take a step in addition to payment of a fee. There are currently two such fee-plus laws on the Repository, and they both concerned persons who were not United States citizens and who had not declared their intention to become one. The first one in the Repository is from Washington in 1911, and it required such persons to obtain a certificate from their consul stating that they are a “responsible person.” The second was enacted in 1917 in New Hampshire and it required such persons to state “the purposes for which the possession of the firearm or firearms is desired.”

Around the same time, states across the country enacted statutes banning possession of at least some guns by aliens. These are the first statutes in the Repository that unambiguously ban possession of firearms by aliens. Interestingly, there is one law that seemingly swept across the country over fourteen years—from 1909 to 1923—with very little variation. It read as follows:

[I]t shall be unlawful for any unnaturalized foreign born resident to hunt for or capture or kill, in this Commonwealth, any wild bird or animal, either game or otherwise, of any description excepting in defense of person or property; and to that end it shall be unlawful for any unnaturalized foreign born resident, within this Commonwealth, to either own or be possessed of a shotgun or rifle of any make.

According to the laws on the Repository, Pennsylvania was the first to enact this law in 1909. New Jersey, North Dakota, and New Mexico followed with vastly similar statutes within the span of twelve years. Colorado, Michigan, and Minnesota also enacted a modified version of the statute, with the key change that “unnaturalized foreign-born residents” were prohibited from possessing firearms of any kind, not just shotguns and rifles. New York also enacted a modified version in 1923 which prohibited possession of a rifle or shotgun by an alien without a “special license.”

At the tail end of that statute’s sweep across the country, at least based on the Repository, another statute swept through multiple states (North Dakota, California, Nevada and Oregon) within the following decade. That law prohibited the possession of weapons capable of being concealed (e.g., pistols and revolvers) by unnaturalized foreign-born persons.

These observations raise a number of questions: Was there a gap in laws addressing aliens between the Revolutionary War and the late nineteenth century? If so, why, and why the sudden flurry of laws at the end of the nineteenth century and into the early twentieth century? Is it the result of the lead up to and the aftermath of World War I? The invention of new modes of transit?  Why the sweep in the enactment of nearly identical laws across the country? Where did they begin?