Author under Fire on Accuracy of Gun Research

By McCain, Robert Stacy | The Washington Times (Washington, DC), January 1, 2002 | Go to article overview

Author under Fire on Accuracy of Gun Research


McCain, Robert Stacy, The Washington Times (Washington, DC)


Byline: Robert Stacy McCain

Michael Bellesiles' book "Arming America" won praise from gun-control advocates for "demolishing the myth" behind the individual right to gun ownership, with reviewers calling the book "exciting" and "valuable and thought-provoking."

Now Mr. Bellesiles' book, which contended that private gun ownership was uncommon in early America, is being called something else: a fraud.

Several scholars, including some who favor gun-control laws, say the research in "Arming America" is inaccurate or even deliberately deceptive.

They say the book misinterprets Colonial documents, misquotes early federal laws, distorts historical accounts and cites San Francisco records that officials agree were destroyed in the 1906 earthquake.

Gun rights activists denounced the Bellesiles book when it was published in September 2000. In recent months, liberals, too, have turned against Mr. Bellesiles.

Serious errors in "Arming America" have been exposed in the Boston Globe and the New York Times, and pundit Russell Baker has dubbed Mr. Bellesiles "the Milli Vanilli of the academic community."

"There's absolutely no question in my mind of intentional deception on [Mr. Bellesiles'] part," says Clayton Cramer, author of two books on the history of American gun laws, who says he's found "hundreds and hundreds" of errors in "Arming America."

"Simple mistakes will not explain what's gone on here. This is more than typos. This is massive misrepresentation of his own sources," Mr. Cramer said, calling Mr. Bellesiles' 603-page book "a target-rich environment for finding deception or fraud."

On his Web site - www.claytoncramer.com - Mr. Cramer shows how Mr. Bellesiles' falsely contended that a 1792 federal law required Congress to supply guns to militia members, when in fact the law required militia members to provide their own guns.

It is an important distinction, according to legal scholars, because private ownership of guns for militia service is linked to the constitutional "right to keep and bear arms." By saying the 1792 law made the federal government - not individual citizens - the source of militia guns, "Arming America" struck at the heart of Second Amendment protections.

"Bellesiles made no secret of his political agenda," author Richard Poe says. "He stated it plainly. And he apparently bent the facts to suit his agenda, with extravagant disdain for the truth."

The most serious charge against Mr. Bellesiles, a professor at Emory University in Atlanta, is that he based his book in part on records that do not exist.

Mr. Bellesiles said he had researched more than 10,000 probate inventories - lists of estate items included in official wills - and found that, contrary to popular belief, guns were uncommon in early American homes.

"America's gun culture is an invented tradition," Mr. Bellesiles wrote, disputing frontier legends of the pioneer cabin with a musket hanging above the hearth.

His assertion that gun ownership was rare in America until the mid-19th century made Mr. Bellesiles a hero of gun-control advocates, who praised him for "debunk[ing] the mythology propagated by the gun lobby."

Michael Barnes, president of the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence, said Mr. Bellesiles "has removed one more weapon in the gun lobby's arsenal of fallacies against common-sense gun laws."

In April, Mr. Bellesiles was awarded the Bancroft Prize, perhaps the most prestigious award for an American historian. Repeatedly, "Arming America" drew praise for Mr. Bellesiles' heavily footnoted use of probate records, which The Washington Post called the author's "freshest and most interesting source."

But in many cases, researchers say, that evidence is nonexistent.

In the most glaring instance, Mr. Bellesiles cites guns listed in probate records for San Francisco between 1849 and 1859. …

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