Academic journal article Texas Law Review

Arming America

Academic journal article Texas Law Review

Arming America

Article excerpt

Historians must be faithful to sources by collecting and reporting them carefully. Scholarship relies heavily on trust because scholars all build on the work of others. Above all, it is important to report accurately on the people and events of the past.1

I. Introduction

Few historians have made such extravagant claims for their monographs nor had them accepted so uncritically as has Michael Bellesiles, a professor of history at Emory University and founder of its Center for the Study of Violence. In Arming America: The Origins of a National Gun Culture, Bellesiles brands our long-held understanding of the place of firearms in the lives of antebellum Americans as "an invented tradition"2 in which "the gun culture has been read from the present into the past"3 with historians joining "actively in the mythmaking."4 "The notion that a well-armed public buttressed the American dream," he assures us, "would have appeared harebrained to most Americans before the Civil War."5 The book's dust jacket is emblazoned with claims no less extravagant than the author's own. Distinguished reviewers hail his assertions that firearms were scarce and Americans indifferent to them as no less than a "myth-busting tour de force"6 that "changes everything, "7 a study capable of raising current controversies about gun control "from hysteria to sensible analysis."8 Stewart Udall, former Secretary of the Interior, informs us that "[t]hinking people who deplore Americans' addiction to gun violence have been waiting a long time for this information. "9 Robert Dykstra insists the book "will convince any sane reader" that America's 11 gun culture' owes little to personal self-defense in its pioneer past-or even to putting meat on the table."' In case we fail to appreciate how fixing the date of America's so-called gun culture has any impact on the gun control debate or the meaning of the Second Amendment, Michael Kammen alerts us to the book's "inescapable policy implications."" History is never definitive; even long-accepted beliefs are continually refined as new evidence comes to light. Moreover, any book that can raise the debate over gun control to a more factual level is surely welcome. But at the risk of appearing an unthinking person or insane reader, it is essential to take a searching look at the historical evidence mustered by Bellesiles before endorsing his claim that current views of the place of firearms in early America are mere myth. This essay will analyze Bellesiles's evidence and assess its relevance to the current, contentious debate over the intent of the Second Amendment.

Bellesiles's argument is sweeping in its scope. At least up to the 1850s, he tells us, firearms were rare, expensive, ineffective, inefficient, and heavily regulated."2 They were restricted to a wealthy few in England, played little role in the conquest and settlement of the New World, and were of marginal utility to American settlers because they regarded them as virtually useless for protection and had no interest in hunting."3 Indeed, he reports that America's colonial governments were forever trying, with little success, to interest colonists in obtaining and using these weapons. 14 The early national government found the task just as frustrating. Bellesiles starts from an assumption that firearms, in and of themselves, cause violence, hence he insists England and America were more peaceful before guns became common. The author informs us his conclusions are based upon an exhaustive analysis of over eleven thousand probate inventories from forty counties dating from 1765 to 1859 and his research into historical materials that include private accounts, military and business records, legislation, fiction, and other sources.

Because Arming America seeks to pinpoint the origins of a "national gun culture," it seems helpful, at the outset, to learn just what Bellesiles means by a "gun culture." His introduction refers to "the sincere love and affection with which American society views its weapons,"16 the centrality of the gun "to American identity" 17 and "a shared and wide-spread culture idolizing firearms . …

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