Skip to content

Firearms Carceralism


Gun violence is a pressing national concern. And it has been for decades. Throughout nearly all that time, the primary tool lawmakers have deployed to stanch the violence has been the machinery of the criminal law. Increased policing, intrusive surveillance, vigorous prosecution, and punitive penalties are showered on gun offenders. This Article spotlights and specifies this approach—what it calls “firearms carceralism”—and details how a decades-long bipartisan consensus generated a set of state-centered solutions to gun violence that has not meaningfully impacted the problem. Instead, those policies have exacerbated racial inequity and compounded civic and community harms.

The Article traces the escalating punitive measures imposed on gun offenders over the past half century. It first peers down into one microcosmic exemplar of firearms carceralism etched into federal mandatory minimum provisions and Supreme Court case law magnifying those penalties. It describes how criminal justice reforms have traditionally excluded those whose offenses are categorized as violent, and specifically and emphatically

those who offend with guns by their side. It then draws out promising hints of a path to including gun offenders in efforts to reform or reimagine the criminal legal system.

Most fundamentally, however, the Article wages a sustained critique of the system of firearms carceralism that fronts aggressive law enforcement and draconian terms of incarceration. It describes the unjustifiable breadth and depth of these practices and the harmful, racialized, and exclusionary values they simultaneously draw from and reinscribe.

Finally, the Article argues in favor of three alternative paths to equitable peace and safety. First, it outlines private sector steps to, for example, dampen illicit firearms supply. Second, it highlights civil legal interventions like red flag laws and tort lawsuits against irresponsible gun sellers. Third, and most prominently, it underscores the promise of community violence intervention and restorative justice programs to bring meaningful safety apart from the carceral tools of coercive control.