About the Repository
Welcome to the Repository of Historical Gun Laws, a searchable database of gun laws from the medieval age to 1776 in England and from the colonial era to the middle of the twentieth century in the United States. This Repository is intended as a resource for scholars and practitioners interested in historical laws concerning firearms and other similar weapons. Although the Repository seeks to be substantial, it is not comprehensive. Laws have generally been chosen to provide samples from as broad a geographic, temporal, and jurisdictional landscape as possible. The absence of a certain type of law in the Repository does not necessarily mean that such a law did not exist.
Please note that the laws have been transcribed from their source texts exactly as they are found, including any typos. If you find an apparent typo, before notifying us, please verify that it is not an intentional transcription of a typo that exists in the original text.
Conscientious users of this Repository should supplement their results with further legal and historical research.
If you have questions or comments about the Repository, or would like to request underlying PDFs for any laws in the Repository, please contact Ethan Margolis at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
To browse the full archive of laws in our Repository, please click here.
How to interpret results
The Repository is a significant but not comprehensive collection of historical gun regulations. Search results must be interpreted with that limitation in mind. Moreover, because it only includes the text of gun regulations, the Repository does not contain all of the information necessary to measure the significance of those regulations.
Among the most important omissions are:
· Reenactment, revision, and repeal. Legislatures frequently reenact, revise, and repeal laws, and the Repository does not comprehensively reflect these changes. Reasonable effort has been made to obtain and cite the earliest enactment of any given law.
· Court decisions. The Repository does not contain case law. Some of the regulations listed here have been the subject of judicial interpretation or abrogation.
· Enforcement. The Repository does not reflect the degree to which laws were actively enforced, nor does it capture executive actions that may have altered their impact.
· Context and cross-references. Some gun regulations are themselves referenced by other laws, which may provide elaborations of the regulations, or exceptions to them. The Repository does not, and cannot, fully provide the context necessary to accurately interpret a regulation’s significance
The Repository is intended to be a tool for lawyers, scholars, and anyone interested in learning more about the history of gun rights and regulation. Given the limitations of this text-only resource, we urge users to supplement their results with further legal and historical research.
How the Repository was Constructed
The Repository of Historical Gun Laws was constructed using search terms likely to identify gun laws, in databases likely to contain such laws, and in time periods likely to be of interest to researchers. It is not comprehensive, but is rather designed to provide a broad, deep, and representative sample of the kinds of gun laws that have existed throughout English and American history. The Repository does not include information concerning the repeal, amendment, interpretation, or enforcement of any of the laws included in the database and makes no representation about the past or current effectiveness of these laws.
The Repository primarily consists of the text of statutes derived from records in the HeinOnline Session Laws Library, and the Making of Modern Law Primary Sources Database. Other sources included Yale Law School’s Avalon Project as well as session laws digitized through state archives, archive.org, the HeinOnline State Statutes Historical Archive and Google Books.
The HeinOnline Session Law Library was searched using the term “gun” and searches were done from the earliest date available until the session encompassing 1934. This search term provided results including the words “gunpowder”, “shotgun”, “punt-gun”, “machine-gun” and “gun.” The search term also resulted in an enormous number of irrelevant results especially for the word “begun,” additionally a surprising number of place names include the word “gun” or “gunpowder.” For the period from the earliest available session laws until 1900, a separate keyword search was conducted for each year for each state, for example, a search for the term “gun” limited to the year 1834 in the state of Massachusetts. For the period from 1901-1934 a single search for each state was done, with a single, collective review conducted of the results for that entire time period. The substantive review remained unchanged.
The Making of Modern Law database was searched using the search: “gun or pi*tol or rifle” with the date range “1600-1900.” Results were then reviewed for relevance. Excluded results included militia and police firearm purchasing records, speeches and historical articles including the search terms. For the Making of Modern Law database a single search was conducted for the entire time period and results were then sorted chronologically and reviewed in that manner. Other sources including the Avalon Project, archive.org, Google Books and the HeinOnline State Statutes were reviewed using keyword searches closely following those used to search the Making Modern Law database.
For the first several hundred law entries, spelling was modernized and standardized to ensure ease of reading and search. These changes adjusted for the non-standard spellings of the very early laws (i.e. pistole) as well as the historical use of the long s (the letter "s" appearing as an "f" when not at the end of a word) in many early sources. These changes were not intended to impact the meaning of any of the materials. Laws that have been added more recently keep the exact spelling (and as close to the exact formatting as possible) as the original document. This includes typos that existed in the original document. Most of the recently added laws have "typos" of this sort. They are intentional and are meant to present the documents in their original form without editorial interference. The search algorithm is aware of the alternate spellings that have resulted from strictly adhering to the original text, and users can successfully search using normal spellings by keeping the "Include Related Terms?" box checked at the time of their search.
After the initial search and data entry a second level review of every statute in the database was conducted, by a law student research assistant, paralegal, or attorney. The reviewers compared the text of the statute included in the database with a PDF or JPG of the session law to make sure it was accurately represented. The reviewer also ensured the statute was accurately categorized by law type, location and date, and that the citation was correct.
Because this database is intended to be representative rather than comprehensive, not every statute dealing with firearms and other weapons regulation is included. Militia regulations and statutes, ordinances and laws dealing with gunpowder storage, regulations on hunting, and laws against firing weapons were so prevalent that it was not realistic to include them all. Also excluded are statutes that were reenacted in essentially the same form within the same historical period. The inclusion of local ordinances was generally limited to one example of each kind of regulation per state, per historic period. When a regulation appeared in more than one historical period, reasonable effort was made to include an example of such enactment or codification in each historical period in which it appeared.
Sources are divided into five historical periods: (1) English, which includes English statutes up to the split with the American colonies in 1776; (2) Colonial, which includes statutes passed within the American colonies beginning in 1607 and continuing to the ratification of the Constitution in 1791; (3) Pre-14th Amendment; (4) Post-14th Amendment; and (5) Twentieth Century up to 1934, the year of the first major federal firearms regulation, the National Firearms Act.
The Repository is an ongoing project. It may be updated to include additional statutes to bring the scope of the Repository closer to the present, fill in the English regulatory history, add newly discovered historical statutes and ordinances, and correct errors or omissions.
This project benefited from research support from Duke University and Everytown for Gun Safety.
Corrections and comments may be sent to Ethan Margolis at email@example.com.