Author under fire on accuracy of gun research
Robert Stacy McCain
THE WASHINGTON TIMES
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
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
"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
"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
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. However, authorities say, all such records were destroyed in the
city's 1906 earthquake.
"All official probate records were
destroyed in the San Francisco earthquake and fire because the city hall
burned down," a reference librarian at the city's Sutro Library told
National Review's Melissa Seckora.
Like other critics, Miss Seckora found that
Mr. Bellesiles changed his story when confronted with questions about his
research. Mr. Cramer says Mr. Bellesiles has "changed his story three
times" about misquoting the 1792 Militia Act.
In recent months, "Arming America"
has attracted a growing swarm of researchers who have found other serious
errors. Northwestern University law professor James Lindgren says Mr.
Bellesiles "counted guns in about 100 wills [in Colonial Rhode
Island] where people died without wills."
Although researchers often disagree over the
interpretation of data, scholars say, making up sources is an offense
almost unheard of among serious historians.
"Everyone makes some mistakes,"
Bentley College history professor Joyce Malcolm said. "It's just in
this case, the mistakes were wholesale. The book is just riddled with
errors. It was so astounding, as a historian, I felt my jaw drop."
Mrs. Malcolm, whose 1994 book "To Keep
and Bear Arms" traced the British roots of the Second Amendment, said
the possibility Mr. Bellesiles fabricated data "takes your breath
"All his mistakes tend to support his
thesis, every single one of them," she said. "It's hard to
believe it's in good faith."
Mr. Bellesiles did not return telephone
calls seeking comment on "Arming America." In the November issue
of the Organization of American Historians (OAH) newsletter, however, he
replied to his "ideologically charged" critics, saying he was
the victim of "personal attacks," including "hateful,
threatening, and expletive-laced phone calls, mail, e-mail and
In his OAH article, Mr. Bellesiles said many
of his notes for "Arming America" were destroyed when his Emory
office was flooded in April 2000 and that he "had to reconstruct
where I read the probate files from memory." He said an upcoming
issue of the William and Mary Quarterly devoted to the "Arming
America" controversy "will explore alternative readings of the
The nature of the charges against Mr.
Bellesiles causes some academics to insist on anonymity in discussing what
one professor called "the worst historical scandal in memory."
James Melton, chairman of the Emory
University history department, has asked Mr. Bellesiles to answer his
accusers in detail.
Mr. Bellesiles must "defend himself and
the integrity of his scholarship immediately," Mr. Melton told the
Boston Globe in October, adding: "Depending upon his response, the
university will respond appropriately."
Emory's demand that Mr. Bellesiles' defend
his work is ominous, author John Lott says.
"The fact that Emory is asking him to
respond to these critics is something I don't remember a university asking
a professor to do," says Mr. Lott, a scholar with the American
Enterprise Institute, whose 1998 book "More Guns, Less Crime"
stirred debate over firearms laws. "I imagine Emory would be forced
to take some kind of dramatic response, if [the accusations of fraud are]
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