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Professor Quits in Probe of Gun Book

Robert Stacy McCain
THE WASHINGTON TIMES
Published 10/28/2002


Michael Bellesiles, the history professor who wrote that firearms were rare in early America, has resigned from Atlanta's Emory University after an investigation found he "willingly misrepresented the evidence" in his award-winning book.

Robert A. Paul, interim dean of Emory College, announced that Mr. Bellesiles would resign effective Dec. 31 after 14 years at Emory, and said the university considers "authoritative" an investigative committee's report about charges of research misconduct against Mr. Bellesiles

The three-person committee — composed of scholars from Princeton University, Harvard University and the University of Chicago — found that Mr. Bellesiles' work showed "evidence of falsification," "egregious misrepresentation" and "exaggeration of data."

"[H]is scholarly integrity is seriously in question," the committee concluded in its 40-page report.

Published two years ago, Mr. Bellesiles' book, "Arming America: The Origins of a National Gun Culture," garnered praise from gun-control advocates, won the prestigious Bancroft Award and was fiercely criticized by scholars who accused Mr. Bellesiles of misrepresenting or even fabricating evidence.

In February, Emory appointed the committee to investigate the charges, and its report — released by the university when it announced Mr. Bellesiles' resignation Friday — found the tenured professor "guilty of unprofessional and misleading work."

Much of Mr. Bellesiles' argument in "Arming America" hinged on probate records — 18th- and 19th-century wills that might list firearms owned by the deceased.

"Every aspect of his work in the probate records is deeply flawed," the committee concluded, finding that Mr. Bellesiles "appears not to have been systematic in selecting repositories or collections of probate records for examination, and his recording methods were at best primitive and altogether unsystematic."

In a statement released Friday, Mr. Bellesiles defended his book, refused to concede wrongdoing and criticized Emory's inquiry as "just plain unfair" for focusing on "one small part" of "Arming America."

"I believe that if we begin investigating every scholar who challenges received truth, it will not be long before no challenging scholarly books are published," Mr. Bellesiles said, saying he was leaving Emory because he could not "continue to teach in what I feel is a hostile environment."

In his seven-page statement, Mr. Bellesiles said the probe of his book "has actually obscured a much more important consideration of the main issues raised by 'Arming America.'"

"Arming America" contradicted previous historical scholarship by saying that Americans in the colonial era and early 1800s had few guns — and that common beliefs about armed farmers and frontiersman were myths.

"America's gun culture is an invented tradition," Mr. Bellesiles wrote.

The book made Mr. Bellesiles a hero to gun-control advocates who praised him for "debunk[ing] the mythology propagated by the gun lobby."

"Arming America" was praised for its use of probate records, which The Washington Post called the author's "freshest and most interesting source."

But scholars, including professor James Lindgren of Northwestern University, examined the data in "Arming America" and found it did not match the probate records. While other critics said Mr. Bellesiles had incorrectly cited early laws regarding militias or misinterpreted first-hand narratives about gun ownership in early America, it was his use of probate data that was the focus of the Emory investigation.

The committee's report, written by professors Stanley Katz of Princeton, Hanna Gray of Chicago and Laurel Thatcher Ulrich of Harvard, found Mr. Bellesiles guilty of "sloppy scholarship," using "randomly gathered information" and "unsystematic research" in reporting data from Vermont probate records.

One of the most serious accusations was that Mr. Bellesiles had fabricated data for California in cases where the records had been destroyed by the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. Mr. Bellesiles later said that he meant to cite Contra Costa County documents that were not destroyed.

The committee wrote that it "cannot prove that Professor Bellesiles simply invented his California research," but that "neither do we have confidence that the Contra Costa inventories resolve the problem."

The most damaging of the committee's findings related to the book's "Table One," a chart about colonial gun ownership in which Mr. Bellesiles excluded data from another scholar's study of the subject.

"If Professor Bellesiles silently excluded data from the years 1774-1776, as he asserts, precisely because they failed to show low numbers of guns, he has willingly misrepresented the evidence," the report said, adding that similar problems "suggest that there is a real discrepancy between the research Professor Bellesiles did and his presentation of that research in Table One."

Mr. Bellesiles' responses to the charges of research misconduct were "confusing, evasive and occasionally contradictory," the committee said.

The committee's report was completed in July, but its publication was withheld while Mr. Bellesiles filed an appeal.

In May, the National Endowment for the Humanities asked that its name be removed from a research fellowship Mr. Bellesiles had received and which he is using to conduct research for his next book at the Newberry Library in Chicago.

Copyright 2002 News World Communications, Inc. All rights reserved.


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29 oct 2002