Firearm Legislation According to Thomas Jefferson


Laws that forbid the carrying of arms…(Quotation).

The following quotation is sometimes attributed to Thomas Jefferson:

“Laws that forbid the carrying of arms…disarm only those who are neither inclined nor determined to commit crimes. Such laws make things worse for the assaulted and better for the assailants; they serve rather to encourage than prevent homicides, for an unarmed man may be attacked with greater confidence than an armed one.”

This is not something Jefferson wrote, but rather comes from a passage he included in his “Legal Commonplace Book.” The passage is from Cesare Beccaria’s Essay on Crimes and Punishments.[1] It appears in Jefferson’s commonplace book as follows:

Falsa idea di utilità è quella, che sacrifica mille vantaggi reali, per un inconveniente o immaginario, o di poca conseguenza, che toglierebbe agli uomini il fuoco perchè incendia, e l’acqua perchè annega; che non ripara ai mali, che col distruggere. Le leggi, che proibiscono di portar le armi, sono leggi di tal natura; esse non disarmano che i non inclinati, nè determinati ai delitti, mentre coloro che hanno il coraggio di poter violare le leggi più sacre della umanità è le più importanti del codice, come rispetteranno le minori, e le puramente arbitrarie? Queste peggiorano la condizione degli assaliti migliorando quella degli assalitori, non iscemano gli omicidi, ma gli accrescono, perchè è maggiore la confidenza nell’assalire i disarmati, che gli armati. Queste si chiaman leggi, non preventrici, ma paurose dei delitti, che nascono dalla tumultuosa impressione di alcuni fatti particolari, non dalla ragionata meditazione degl’inconvenienti, ed avvantaggi di un decreto universale.[2]

 Jefferson’s only notation on this passage was, “False idee di utilità.”[3]

The English translation of this passage which appeared in the 1809 edition Jefferson later owned is as follows:

“A principal source of errors and injustice are false ideas of utility. For example: that legislator has false ideas of utility who considers particular more than general conveniencies, who had rather command the sentiments of mankind than excite them, who dares say to reason, ‘Be thou a slave;’ who would sacrifice a thousand real advantages to the fear of an imaginary or trifling inconvenience; who would deprive men of the use of fire for fear of their being burnt, and of water for fear of their being drowned; and who knows of no means of preventing evil but by destroying it.

The laws of this nature are those which forbid to wear arms, disarming those only who are not disposed to commit the crime which the laws mean to prevent. Can it be supposed, that those who have the courage to violate the most sacred laws of humanity, and the most important of the code, will respect the less considerable and arbitrary injunctions, the violation of which is so easy, and of so little comparative importance? Does not the execution of this law deprive the subject of that personal liberty, so dear to mankind and to the wise legislator? and does it not subject the innocent to all the disagreeable circumstances that should only fall on the guilty? It certainly makes the situation of the assaulted worse, and of the assailants better, and rather encourages than prevents murder, as it requires less courage to attack unarmed than armed persons.”[4]

The English translation of this passage originally quoted above, and the one most often seen on other Internet sites, is most likely a later translation; it may be taken from a 1963 translation by Henry Palolucci.[5]


    1. Jefferson owned a copy of this work in the original Italian; he later purchased an English translation, published in London in 1809, which was sold to the Library of Congress (Sowerby, Entry 2349, 3:21).
    2. Thomas Jefferson, The Commonplace Book of Thomas Jefferson: A Repertory of His Ideas on Government, ed. Gilbert Chinard (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1926), 314.
    3. Ibid.
    4. Cesare Beccaria, An Essay on Crimes & Punishments, translated from the Italian with a commentary, attributed to M. de Voltaire, translated from the French (New York: Stephen Gould, 1809), 124-125.


  1. Cesare Beccaria, On Crimes and Punishments, trans. by Henry Palolucci (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1963), 87-88.


Login or register to participate in our online community.

About annetbell

I am a retired elementary teacher, well seasoned world traveler,new blogger, grandmother, and a new enthusiastic discoverer of the wonderfully complex country of India. Anne
This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Firearm Legislation According to Thomas Jefferson

  1. Don Ostertag says:

    The NRA constantly uses the same defense for carrying guns as Jefferson. At the 2015 NRA Convention the building where the convention was held was declared a no-gun zone by NRA officials. A tad bit hypocritical.
    For years the major source of illegal guns were guns stolen in home burglaries. In recent years it is guns stolen from glove compartments of cars. Loose guns around the house accounts for so many deaths and injuries in domestic disputes and children playing with guns. Unless gun advocates want Draconian laws governing guns they must do a better job of ‘controlling’ their own guns.


  2. Kentucky Angel says:

    Oh thanks Anne. After I took the time to translate that passage, I found it already translated down in the page. It’s been 57 years since high school Latin, you know, and my books are all dated now, but at least that is one language that never changes. I’m not sure gun control will ever happen, mainly because if it does the only people having them will be the ones you really don’t want to have one–the playground bully type who has to have a gang to give him courage, and they all have guns.knives, or some other form of weapon. I know all about people saying they need guns for protection, but who is protecting whom? And from what? You shoot an intruder and you are the one who is arrested, then sued by the intruder for inflicting bodily harm. Is it really worth the trouble? Personally, I would rather duck behind something and hold my breath hoping they will go away, while I’m dialing 911 as quietly as possible. But if that doesn’t work, I always have my spray bottle of rubbing alcohol. Won’t kill anyone, but will sure make them stop for a while and give me time to exit stage Left.

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.