This Week’s Column:


by Dennis Loy Johnson

November 19, 2001 — The attack on Michael A. Bellesiles and his book, "Arming America: The Origins of a National Gun Culture," began even before the book existed: Nearly a year before its September 2000 publication date, Charlton Heston, president of the National Rifle Association, wrote in the November 1999 issue of Guns & Ammo magazine that the Emory history professor's research-heavy writing showed "Bellesiles had too much time on his hands," and he called Bellesiles foolish to question the "useful myths" of America's past.

What were the "useful myths" Heston was talking about?

Using a wide variety of contemporary source material — such as 18th century probate records listing homeowners' possessions, including guns — Bellesiles posited that gun ownership amongst colonial Americans wasn't near as prevalent as previously believed.

"The response was electric," the Boston Globe noted. Critics and historians nationwide lauded "Arming America" for its insightful examination of conventional wisdom. In a New York Times review, historian Garry Wills said Bellesiles "provides overwhelming evidence that our view of the gun is as deep a superstition as any that affected Native Americans in the 17th century," and the book won Columbia University's prestigious Bancroft Prize for history.

The hoopla, however, did nothing to assuage the critics unleashed by Charlton Heston, who stoked fires anew with a letter to the Times chiding Wills for his praise of the "ludicrous" book that Heston seemed to feel questioned "the wise old dead white guys who invented our country."

"Arming America," as the Globe observed, was a "lightning rod" because it could "force a rethinking of the intent of the Second Amendment . . . If, contrary to the familiar image of the sturdy yeoman with his trusty flintlock, few Americans had actually owned guns, it could be, as some gun-control advocates argue, that the amendment was never meant to apply to individuals."

Meanwhile, Bellesiles says, he was getting thousands of e-mails and faxes — many, threatening and/or obscene — calling him "'a paid agent of ZOG' (the Zionist Occupational Government)," or a "faggot feminazi," or worse. His computer was sent a series of crippling viruses, and his website "hacked," he says, with some of his scholarly postings altered or deleted. Meanwhile, copies of a form letter demanding his firing from Emory began flooding "the university's administrators, the board of trustees, my colleagues," and even "technical support staff."

Bad as it was, driving Bellesiles into virtual hiding, it seemed no more than a particularly vile version of what happens when you disagree with the NRA.

Except then, in early September, the Boston Globe reported several "academic doubters" had charged Bellesiles with "multiple instances in which he seems to have misused historical records" and said he "may have stretched or distorted the historical record in trying to prove his claim."

"The more I looked at it, the more disturbed I became," said Second Amendment historian and Bentley College professor Joyce Malcolm. "It's not just interpretation, or one or two points, but matters of fact and repeatedly."

Northwestern University law professor James Lindgren charged Bellesiles could not have examined the San Francisco probate records he cites because they were destroyed in the 1906 earthquake.

And the Globe itself investigated some New England probate records Bellesiles had cited, and reported that whereas Bellesiles' transcriptions "repeatedly characterize weapons as 'old' or 'rusty' or 'broken' . . . the records themselves show no such notations."

Meanwhile, many of Bellesiles own documents were destroyed — including notes relating to the San Francisco records, he says — when Emory's history department offices were flooded.

Nonetheless, a month after the Globe charges he has issued the first of what he says will be a series of formal, scholarly responses. In a paper published by the Organization of American Historians, he admits to mistakes transcribing probate records, implies some others were alterations made by "hackers" to his website data, and says that without his destroyed notes he can't recall where he found the San Francisco data. But he also issues some solid refutation on other points raised by the Globe.

A new Globe story, though, says Bellesiles' reply is "unlikely to pacify either his ideological foes or those academic critics who think his scholarship flawed," partly because he spends too much time deploring the personal and partisan tone of the criticism.

Well, Bellesiles is never going to "pacify" his ideological foes, and it's hard not to wonder how the overwhelmingly nasty tone is indeed hindering an objective discussion of the research, even amongst serious and respectable critics — which some of Bellesiles' detractors certainly are.

But it's hard not to admire, in the interim, Bellesiles' insistence that the discussion be conducted as a scholarly inquiry; he says he will issue a further response in the William and Mary Quarterly later this academic year.

And it's hard not to note that when discussing the Second Amendment, the thing that always seems to end up shot full of holes is its predecessor amendment — the one about free speech.

Last Week’s Column: WHO KILLED LINGUA FRANCA? When a popular magazine goes under, the publishers says it's because a mystery backer pulled out . . . and no one asks who it is, or why, or mentions the multim–million dollar suit against the publisher.


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All material not otherwise attributed ©2001 Dennis Loy Johnson.