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About the Repository

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.

Spelling has been modernized and standardized throughout the database 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.

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 ethan.margolis@law.duke.edu.