Gunning for A Bad Book: Is Author Michael Bellesiles Trying to Prove That the Pen Is Mightier Then the Gun?

By Will, George F. | Newsweek, May 20, 2002 | Go to article overview

Gunning for A Bad Book: Is Author Michael Bellesiles Trying to Prove That the Pen Is Mightier Then the Gun?


Will, George F., Newsweek


Byline: George Will

In a large event, much commented on, the Justice Department last week told the Supreme Court that the Second Amendment ("A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed") "broadly protects the rights of individuals," not just the right of states to organize militias. This event was pertinent to a small event two weeks earlier, noticed by almost no one. The National Endowment for the Humanities demanded a review of "the serious charges that have been made against Michael Bellesiles' scholarship," which the NEH helped to finance.

He is the Emory University historian whose 2000 book "Arming America: The Origins of a National Gun Culture" earned--well, received--critical acclaim, including the Bancroft Prize, the most distinguished prize in American history. But now, slowly but relentlessly, some responsible intellectuals are defending standards of scholarship.

Bellesiles's thesis is startling. It is that guns were not widely owned, or reliable enough to be important, at the time the Second Amendment was written. The implication is that the amendment should be read to protect only the collective rights of states, not the rights of individuals. The book pleased partisans of a cause popular in the liberal political culture of academia--gun control. Reviews were rapturous: "exhaustive research," "intellectual rigor," "inescapable policy implications," "the NRA's worst nightmare."

Not exactly.

What has become Bellesiles's nightmare began when a historian, suspecting nothing and hoping to build upon Bellesiles's data, asked for more details about the 18th- and early-19th-century probate records that Bellesiles says show that guns were infrequently listed among the estates of deceased people. He also purported to find that many of the guns that were listed were in disrepair.

When Bellesiles's evasive response led to more tugging on the threads of his argument, it unraveled. The unraveling revealed a pattern of gross misstatements of facts and unfounded conclusions. His errors are so consistently convenient for his thesis, it is difficult to believe that the explanation is mere sloppiness or incompetence. It looks like fraud.

Responding to critics, he said some of his crucial research notes had been destroyed in a flood in his office. He said he had relied on microfilm records in the federal archive in East Point, Ga. But it has no such records. He said he had examined probate records in 30 places around the country, such as the San Francisco Superior Court. …

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Gunning for A Bad Book: Is Author Michael Bellesiles Trying to Prove That the Pen Is Mightier Then the Gun?
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