Governments today seek to monopolize violence and to control the ability of people to defend themselves, their families, and their communities. In doing so, governments present themselves not only as representatives and protectors of their people, but also as the necessary end of the historical process. These views can be contested, not only by appealing to empirical and philosophical aspects of the modern situation, but also by looking at the march of time. Both involve challenging the arrogant claims of the state to power and legitimacy.

History reveals the degree to which states increasingly became the expression of organized violence. This owed much to the ambition of governments to monopolize the use of such violence, at the expense of a range of groups, from private individuals to stateless pirates and mercenaries. Indeed, the monopolization of violence became a definition of statehood, as a functional understanding of rulership replaced the traditional legitimist understanding in the 19th and 20th centuries. Governments today prefer to rely on other definitions, especially those summed up in the term “democracy,” but part of the brutal truth is that states and governments are defined by power, the quest for power, and the denial of power to others.

Yet this monopolization of violence is relatively recent, and in no way an inevitable aspect of state organization. In the 19th century, military entrepreneurship—mercenary activity became less frequent in Europe, and this influenced relations between states, and between states and nonstate bodies. Recruiting via intermediaries was replaced by direct recruiting, especially systems of conscription. The Crimean War (1853- 56) was the last war in which the British government recruited units of European foreign mercenaries for war service.

Authorized nonstate violence was also eliminated in a piecemeal fashion, mostly in the 19th century. This hit privateers, such as the government-supported and supporting Barbary corsairs of North Africa, and mercantile companies with territorial power and their own armed forces, such as the British East India Company. The elimination of such practices owed something to their ability to provoke interstate conflicts by being outside full state control. Their elimination also reflected a sense that such practices were anachronistic as well as antagonistic to governments that sought power, emphasized reform, and placed a premium on rationality, conceived of in terms of a clearly defined organization with explicit rules of conduct and state-directed systems. The territorial and military roles of the companies came to an end, that of the British East India Company after the Indian Mutiny. At a more mundane level, in 1882 the Italian government took over the coaling base established by the Rubattino Steamship Company at Assab near the mouth of the Red Sea. It seemed inappropriate for private companies to control territory, although there was scant sign that entities such as the Hudson Bay Company were abusive.

There were exceptions, but they became more uncommon. One latter-day adventurer, James Brooke (1803-68), helped suppress a rebellion in Sarawak in northern Borneo, and was rewarded by the Prince of Brunei with its governorship (1841). That became the basis of a territorial position that led to him, and to the nephew and grandnephew who succeeded him, being termed the “white rajahs” of Sarawak. Under the nephew, Sir Charles Anthony Johnson, the territory expanded, and in 1888 Sarawak was converted into a British protectorate. The last rajah did not cede Sarawak to the British crown until 1946; his position had been destabilized by the effects of Japanese occupation during World War II.

Despite the success of the Brookes, opportunities for such activity became less common. They had flourished beyond the frontiers of empire, a world brilliantly captured in George MacDonald Fraser’s recent Flashman novels. Thus, in India, the willingness of the locals to turn to European weaponry and military methods had provided careers for a number of European soldiers. The most spectacular was George Thomas, an Irishman who deserted the British navy in 1781 and rose, through military command in Indian armies, to independent control of a substantial region between Delhi and the Punjab by 1799.

Such opportunities disappeared as the regularity of 19th-century government swept across much of the world. In addition to authorized nonstate violence, unauthorized nonstate violence, particularly piracy and privately organized expeditions designed to seize territory, was also in large part stamped out in the 19th century. This both demonstrated and enhanced the ability of states to monopolize power, and the European powers, especially Britain, devoted much effort to suppressing piracy, especially off China, in the East Indies, off British Columbia, in the Pacific, and in the Persian Gulf.

The banning of the slave trade and the subsequent measures taken to extend and enforce the bans were also important examples of moves designed to end authorized, and then unauthorized, nonstate violence. The British navy was especially active in employing violence against the slave trade, particularly from Africa to the Middle East. The European powers sought to monopolize military force, both within their European territories and in their colonies, on land and at sea. An important example of a state establishing a monopoly of violence was the effort to bring the Cossacks of both Ukraine and South and Southeast European Russia under state control, which ultimately left them vulnerable to the Stalinist tyranny. The redshirted volunteer force with which Giuseppi Garibaldi conquered Sicily and Naples in 1860 was absorbed into the Italian army, and in 1862, when he subsequently formed a private army to capture Rome, then an independent papal state, it was defeated by the Italian army.

Monopolization of violence was linked to state control of societies, which was a gradual but insistent process. European states first sought to prevent the use by partisan groups of organized violence for the pursuit of domestic political objectives. They also took steps against feuds. At the personal level, the activity of the state was initially less insistent, but measures were nevertheless taken to abolish—or at least to limit—dueling, and to restrict the ownership of firearms.

Moves to restrict the ownership of arms were pursued in the 19th century, at the very time when there was an increasing emphasis on conscription and the availability of military reserves. Governments were determined to control both the practice of mass recruitment and its consequences. Force was used as never before, but it was force by and for governments.

Governments were particularly determined to monopolize arms that had a battlefield capability. This was true both of artillery, from its initial development, and of flintlock muskets in the 18th century. Furthermore, by the 16th century, most sophisticated fortifications were under central government control, and, by the 18th, they all were. Even though personal weapons were of scant value against the increasingly powerful armies of the state, European states sought to control their ownership.

Gun control fused the regulatory ambitions of government and the antidemocratic nature of ancien régime Europe. Thus, only those trusted by government were allowed to possess firearms. Thanks to hunting, this had direct economic consequences. For example, in Normandy, in order to protect the monopoly of hunting by the nobility, the peasantry was prohibited from possessing arms. Under a regulation of 1766, a simple denunciation by a noble could lead to a peasant’s house being searched and the culprit jailed for three months without recourse to the ordinary courts. In Poland the right to wear a sword in public was restricted to the nobility. Hierarchy and the control of the countryside was reflected in the limitations of rights to hunting by the English Game Acts of 1485 and 1604. Freeholders lost ancient rights to hunt on their own land, thanks to the greater property qualifications introduced by the second act. Thus, the American claim to the right to bear arms was as much a declaration of social emancipation as of political freedom.

Force in the 19th century was increasingly concentrated at the disposal of authority, especially the authority of the state. Thus, in the 1860’s, a large army and the use of terror subdued peasant opposition to the government in southern Italy. Professional police forces increased state power. In Britain, a professional police force replaced the yeomanry and the sometimes incompetent constables. Peel’s Metropolitan Police Act (1829) created a uniformed and paid force for London. This trend was extended by acts in 1835 and 1839, and the County and Borough Police Act (1856) made the formation of paid forces obligatory. The new police largely replaced individuals as prosecutors in cases of criminal justice in England and Ireland. In most of Europe, policing was brought under the control of central governments.

This process of increased state control over violence was seen even in the United States, where traditions of individualism were strong and the ownership of personal weapons widespread. Nevertheless, ever since the North’s victory in the Civil War, the central government has increasingly viewed political opponents and nonconformists as lawless rogues who needed to be controlled, if not suppressed. This development was especially evident in the severe suppression of personal liberties during World War I, in the “Red Scare” and Palmer Raids of 1919-20, as well as in regional conflicts such as California’s “Little Civil War” over water rights in 1924, when ranchers in the Owens Valley blew up the aqueduct to Los Angeles and seized the aqueduct’s principal diversion works. Three years later, when the bombing of the aqueduct was resumed, the city of Los Angeles sent trainloads of guards armed with submachine guns, and this show of force proved effective.

While the ancien régime had distinguished between social groups in deciding who could bear arms, the totalizing democracies of the modern world have proved reluctant to vary their power to control. In Britain, as a result of the Firearms Control Act of 1920 (and its revision, the Firearms Act of 1968), it is necessary to show “good reason” to own a gun —and defense against crime is not just cause. In 1997, the use of handguns was banned as a consequence of the killing of children by a deranged gunman in Dunblane, Scotland: by that logic, the motorcar should have long been banned. The Dunblane killings were in fact the product of the failure of the regulatory system, not of the private ownership of guns. Killings by licensed gun owners were rare, and the change in the law only made unlicensed ownership more likely, thus leading in all likelihood to calls for more and more police surveillance. Thus, unlike in the United States, the British people are more dependent on the police in order to protect themselves, and this, of course, the police are unable to do. Criminals know this, and they know that their victims will be unarmed.

Crime and insecurity are both aspects of the crisis of Western society at the close of the millennium. This sense of helplessness, itself fueled by the government’s monopolization of the means of force, is then used by the central state to justify suppressing still more personal liberties and the right to self-defense. The state presents this process as natural and logical, as the only solution to the problems that plague us. But it is nothing of the sort. It is simply government doing what government does best: monopolizing power.