Scholars Take Aim at Gun History

Kimberley A. Strassel

Source: Wall Street Journal
Published: 4/9/01
Author: Kimberley A. Strassel

Ms. Strassel, a Journal assistant editorial features editor, writes a twice-monthly column, from which this is adapted.

On April 18 Columbia University will hand out its prestigious Bancroft Prize, an annual award presented for outstanding books in history and diplomacy. One of this year's recipients is Emory University professor Michael Bellesiles, for his now-famous book, Arming America: The Origins of a National Gun Culture.

That's hardly surprising, as few books in recent years have so riveted academic and political circles. Released by Knopf last year, Arming America was a bombshell, a piece of work that purported not only to overturn long-held historical beliefs, but to profoundly alter modern politics.

Few colonial Americans owned guns, Mr. Bellesiles argues. He bases this on probate and military records, travel narratives and other sources. What this means for modern politics — though Mr. Bellesiles left the conclusion implicit — is that the Second Amendment may not have been designed to protect individual gun rights.

Unsurprisingly, left-leaning journalists, academics and politicians went weak at the knees. Noted historians like Garry Wills wrote slobbery reviews. Lobbyists and politicians rushed to incorporate the book's conclusions into their work.

But there's a problem. A growing number of respected scholars, from across the political spectrum, are saying that Mr. Bellesiles's research and conclusions are wrong. They've charged that Arming America is riddled with errors so enormous as to seriously undermine his work. They argue he has incorrectly tabulated probate records, failed to include facts that strongly argue the opposite case, and misquoted and miscited sources. Mr. Bellesiles denies all this, but has not yet handed over evidence to refute his critics.

"From what I've seen," says Gerald Rosenberg, a professor of political science at the University of Chicago, "the evidence is so overwhelming that it is incumbent upon Bellesiles as a serious scholar to respond. He either has to admit error, or somehow show how his work is right."

To understand the fuss over Arming America, you have to realize how important Mr. Bellesiles's work is to the gun-control movement. Over the past 15 years, evidence that the Founders had individual protection in mind has mounted so persuasively that even leading constitutional scholars on the left have been swayed.

Arming America was the first work in decades that revived the collective-right argument. And while Mr. Bellesiles says he is a historian, the book's promotion was highly political. "Michael A. Bellesiles is the NRA's worst nightmare," screamed one blurb on the back cover.

Newspaper reviews focused largely on the book's political implications, making little effort to evaluate its historical accuracy. Nitty-gritty peer review in historical journals is notoriously slow; most reviews don't appear until years after publication. And scholars tend to be reluctant to criticize each other's research (interpretations are a different matter).

Many of the professors who spoke to me have backgrounds in crime or Second Amendment issues and so read Arming America when it first came out. They felt unease. "It didn't feel quite right, especially these dramatic changes he found, between a non-gun-owning country to a gun-owning one," says Eric Monkkonen, a professor of history and of public policy at UCLA and author of "Murder in New York City." "Dramatic changes are more exciting than slow ones, but rare."

Scholars first focused on Mr. Bellesiles's sources. Law professors such as Eugene Volokh at UCLA point out examples of misquotations, or of sources that don't contain information Mr. Bellesiles cites or omit relevant facts.

Example: Mr. Volokh points out that page 223 of Arming America says that "Smilie, like most Anti-Federalists, had no problem granting the state the authority to decide who should be allowed to serve in the militia, or to limit those ineligible from owning guns. Nor did most Anti-Federalists want to see the propertyless carrying arms in or out of the militia." The footnote cites three sources but, Mr. Volokh says, none of the sources support the claim. One, in fact, argues that militia should include everyone, "high and low, and rich and poor"; another stresses "to preserve liberty, it is essential that the whole body of the people always possess arms."

Mr. Bellesiles also relies on travel narratives; he mentions some 80 accounts that fail to mention hunting with guns. Joyce Lee Malcolm, a professor of history at Bentley College, says Arming America fails to mention references to guns contained in those same narratives and omits dozens of other travelers who describe widespread ownership. "If you're trying to derive a general theme, you should do as wide a search as possible," she says. "And you certainly ought to include information from the narratives you did look at, even if it is unhelpful."

The biggest evidentiary dispute is over Mr. Bellesiles's use of probate records, or inventories of estates at the time of a citizen's death. Mr. Bellesiles based what many reviewers say is the most important part of the book on this research, including an undisclosed number of probate records from 1765-90. From this, he claims that only 14.7% of adult American males owned guns, and that most of those were listed as old or broken.

James Lindgren, a professor of law at Northwestern, along with student Justin Heather, went back through what they say are all the published records Mr. Bellesiles cites, as well as original records at courthouses and on microfilm. They found that, in the mid-1770s, 54% of men and 18% of women owned firearms, and that most of the guns were not listed as old or broken. "In the only sources of probate records that Mr. Bellesiles cites in his published works, there are many more guns than he discloses," says Mr. Lindgren. "No one who has seen the evidence can figure out how he could have made such errors, or why he has not retracted the obviously mistaken data."

It's hard to make comparisons to Mr. Bellesiles's work because the Emory professor didn't keep a database; he says he compiled his data on paper notes that were recently flooded and ruined. The lack of a database troubles Randolph Roth, an associate history professor at Ohio State who specializes in violent crime. He has seen Mr. Lindgren's work and says that "it looks as though Mr. Bellesiles work won't be reproducible, that it is off by a factor of three to four."

Not all of these professors have an obvious political agenda. Mr. Lindgren, Mr. Rosenberg, Mr. Monkkonen and Mr. Roth all said they favor gun control, that they respect Mr. Bellesiles, and that their criticism is aimed solely at the goal of accuracy. They marked the discrepancies down as honest mistakes. "We don't want to get into political battles," says Mr. Rosenberg. "We just want to do good scholarship."

Mr. Bellesiles told me that many of the people leveling criticisms at his book are "ideologically motivated," and that because of ruined notes, a hectic teaching schedule and lack of graduate assistance, he hasn't had time to make his own case.

He says he plans to put detailed information about the probate records (which he says aren't as relevant as other records) on his Web site as soon as he is able. He also says Mr. Lindgren used a different probate database. Mr. Lindgren responds that he used exactly the same databases that Mr. Bellesiles cites.

With regard to his sources, Mr. Bellesiles says historians can always choose quotes or sources to criticize. And he says that in order to keep his book to a reasonable length, he had to make decisions about which narratives were most important.

Let's hope the answers come soon. For while Mr. Bellesiles insists modern public policy isn't his "business," in a debate that depends so much on knowledge of the Founders' intentions, history is key. His duty as a scholar is to clear up the questions his work has raised.

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12 apr 2001