Firearms Carceralism

64 Pages Posted: 20 Dec 2023

See all articles by Jacob D. Charles

Jacob D. Charles

Pepperdine University - Rick J. Caruso School of Law

Date Written: December 5, 2023


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 staunch 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 visited 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 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 for 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.

Keywords: criminal justice reform, gun violence, community violence, cvi, restorative justice, mandatory minimums

Suggested Citation

Charles, Jacob D., Firearms Carceralism (December 5, 2023). 108 Minnesota Law Review __ 2024 (forthcoming), Available at SSRN:

Jacob D. Charles (Contact Author)

Pepperdine University - Rick J. Caruso School of Law ( email )

24255 Pacific Coast Highway
Malibu, CA 90263
United States

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