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“History is a jangle of accidents, blunders, surprises and absurdities, and so is our knowledge of it, but if we are to report it at all we must impose some order upon it.”

Beginning in the early 1990s, the Executive Branch took a novel approach to the enforcement of federal firearms offenses. It replaced traditional notions of restraint with a newfound willingness to exercise its power broadly, leading to a sharp increase in the number of federal firearms offenders that continues today. A recent development, however, threatens to dismantle the core of the federal firearms scheme. Decided in 2022, the effects of New York State Rifle & Pistol Association, Inc. v. Bruen are already being felt. Several courts, including one circuit court, have already struck down a potpourri of federal firearms statutes. This trend may continue to gain momentum, or it may be stopped in its tracks by a new Supreme Court decision that places limits on Bruen. But it is unlikely to fizzle out on its own.

This article seeks to understand these recent events as distinct modern phenomena. To do so, it creates a holistic, conceptual framework that situates the developments of the last thirty years within the broader, global history of the federal government’s approach to firearms crime. The framework organizes the story of federal firearms policy into a series of conceptual narrative clusters—or acts—each with its own characters, conflicts, and shared views about the role of law in society. Through this framework, themes and trajectories emerge, shedding valuable light on our understanding not only of where we are and where we have been, but also of where we are going in our federal approach to firearms crime. As the first article that paints a comprehensive picture of federal firearms policy in this way, and as one of the first to address the emerging post-Bruen legislation, it will also add structure, focus, and energy to important ongoing scholarly discussions.