Update on Arming America

The Nation, November 25, 2002 | Go to article overview

Update on Arming America


Michael Bellesiles, the historian accused of research falsification in his book Arming America, a study of gun culture, announced on October 25 that he was resigning from Emory University, citing a "hostile environment" [see Jon Wiener, "Fire at Will," November 4]. His resignation, effective at the end of the year, came the very afternoon that Emory released the report of a three-person external board that had been asked to review some of the charges leveled against Bellesiles over the past two years by a number of critics. Bellesiles's book, which won the prestigious Bancroft Prize awarded by Columbia University to top works in history and was widely acclaimed when it came out, argues that our gun culture was created in the Civil War era and that in eighteenth-century America, guns were much less significant. As evidence, he relied in part on probate records from the time; difficulty in reproducing the original research on the subject is what spurred on the critics and led, eventually, to Emory's review board.

The board essentially tried to replicate Bellesiles's findings from the probate records, having been asked by Emory if Bellesiles had engaged in "intentional fabrication or falsification of research data" from those records in Rutland County, Vermont; Providence, Rhode Island; the San Francisco Bay Area; and other records supporting his reports in Table 1 ("Percentage of Probate Inventories Listing Firearms") of his book. The panel--consisting of Stanley Katz, former head of the American Council of Learned Societies and a Princeton faculty member; Hanna Gray, former president of the University of Chicago; and Harvard Professor Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, MacArthur Fellow and Pulitzer Prize-winner--found it impossible to state conclusively that Bellesiles was fabricating or falsifying in the cases of Vermont and Rhode Island, though it was "seriously troubled by [his] scholarly conduct," which it found "sloppy" in those contexts. In the San Francisco case, too, the results of the investigation were murky but not provably deceptive. As to the more general question about Table 1, the board declared that "the failure to clearly identify his sources does move into the realm of 'falsification. …

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