Five months before the publication of Arming America, without seeing the text, The New York Times endorsed its author's claim that few guns, let alone a gun culture, existed in America prior to the Civil War. This was just the beginning of the media blitz that would greet the book. A glowing treatment by Garry Wills adorned the cover of The New York Times Book Review, congratulatory reviews appeared in The Washington Post, the Chicago Tribune, and other papers; the author, Emory University historian Michael Bellesiles, was interviewed on National Public Radio and had an essay in The Chronicle of Higher Education. Reviewers have hailed Arming America as a "myth-buster" that "changes everything," a book destined to raise the gun control debate to a more "fact-based and rational level."
If the point at which America became a "gun culture" seems too academic an issue to arouse such intense excitement, the tributes on the book's dust jacket make it clear that something else is afoot. "Thinking people who deplore Americans' addiction to gun violence have been waiting a long time for this information," says Stewart Udall, the former congressman and secretary of the interior. For those still uncertain why thinking people have been waiting for this, or what the "everything" is that has changed, Cornell University historian Michael Kammen cites the book's "inescapable policy implications." As those blurbs suggest, Arming America has been enthusiastically embraced by gun control advocates as an aid in their effort to persuade Americans (and their courts) that they do not have, and never have had, a constitutional right to be armed.
Any book that can raise the level of debate on any subject, especially one as emotional as gun control, is certainly welcome. The key to a book's value, however, is not whether its findings are those any of us "have been waiting a long time for" but whether they are, in fact, correct. Before considering whether Arming America has indeed shattered a myth, it might be helpful to reflect on why gun control advocates are so excited about a book that, even if accurate, seems only tangentially related to their cause.
Behind the hype is the cantankerous debate over the meaning of the Second Amendment's single sentence: "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." This debate has fallen prey to a passionate political agenda. Proponents of gun control are convinced that guns in the hands of individuals are to blame for violence in America. Their effort to strictly control, if not eliminate, those guns conflicts with the belief held by most Americans that "the right of the people to keep and bear arms" applies to them. Hence the Second Amendment has been subjected to intense and critical scrutiny.
Some commentators have argued that the awkwardly worded article guarantees only members of a well-regulated militia, such as today's National Guard, a right to be armed. According to this view, the amendment protects a "collective right" for particular groups. By 1975 the issue had become so confused that the members of an American Bar Association committee charged with sorting it out threw up their hands and announced, "It is doubtful that the Founding Fathers had any intent in mind with regard to the meaning of this Amendment."
Since then scholars from various fields have delved into the matter and found overwhelming contemporary evidence that the Founders inherited and meant to guarantee an individual right, and none to support the notion that a collective right was intended. This body of work has persuaded such eminent constitutional scholars as Lawrence Tribe and Leonard Levy that the Second Amendment protects an individual right.
Opponents of this view have come up with new, increasingly tenuous arguments. First came the claim that the phrase bear arms was used exclusively in a military context, so its inclusion in the Second Amendment must refer only to militia members. Yet in early American discourse, bear arms often referred to simply carrying a weapon, as a 1998 Supreme Court decision found it still does. (The Second Amendment, of course, also protects a right to "keep" arms, but so far there has been no attempt to redefine keep.) Next came the theory of Carl Bogus, an employee of Handgun Control Inc., that the Second Amendment was the result of a conspiracy between Northern and Southern states to guarantee weapons to keep slaves under control. Among the problems with the Bogus approach is the absence of any direct evidence for such a conspiracy. Then there was the "comma theory," which argued that the stem of the Second Amendment's single sentence, which refers to "the right of the people," can be eliminated because it is set of f by commas. The amendment would then read, "A well regulated militia being necessary to a free state... shall not be infringed." One wonders what would happen if the entire Constitution were interpreted by removing passages surrounded by commas.
Now Michael Bellesiles' book has appeared with a new argument: Guns were rare before the Civil War, and Americans had little interest in owning them. Is Bellesiles correct that neither a gun culture nor many guns existed in early America? He defines a gun culture as a fixation on firearms, and he is probably right that no such general obsession existed until the mid-19th century, if then. But his claim of a nearly gun-free America, the real basis of his argument, is more problematic. Guns, he asserts, were expensive, inefficient, rare, and restricted. He says they were heavily regulated, were owned only by a wealthy few in England, played little role in the conquest of the New World, adorned few colonial mantles, were seldom used for hunting, and were borne by few militiamen and even fewer of their friends and neighbors.
Bellesiles is in good company in finding fault with early muskets; they were cumbersome and inaccurate. He is also among many who criticize the American militia as a fighting force, although few scholars would agree with him that it was "little more than a political gesture." His novel claims about the numbers and uses of firearms, however, demand careful examination. Readers and reviewers are entitled to assume that a professional historian will present evidence fully and fairly, although we might disagree with his interpretation. And any author can make mistakes. But Bellesiles' "myth busting" findings are not supported by his sources. Moreover, he presents a skewed selection of records, dismisses contradictory information, and even alters the language of quotations and statutes. A few examples must suffice.
Bellesiles' discussion of English customs and rights, which are the basis for American use of firearms, provides a starting point. He informs us that the few guns available in England from the 16th through the 18th centuries were severely regulated and restricted to the rich. It's true that there were restrictions on handguns, but when Henry VIII converted his militia from bows to muskets in the 16th century, thousands of Englishmen had to "find" a gun and be trained in its use. Indeed, Henry urged residents of every city and town to "have and keep in every of their houses any such handgun or handguns, of the length of one whole yard...to the intent to use and shoot the same" against the time "when Need Shall Require."
In the 17th century, numerous gangs of armed robbers prowled English highways, and poor laborers were routinely hauled into court for misuse of their firearms. Yet Bellesiles assures us that "only the aristocrats among private citizens owned the frightening new firearms" and that guns "rarely saw use outside of warfare." He claims that most personal violence in early modern England arose from contests between troops of Morris dancers! Neither source he cites for this astonishing allegation supports that claim, a discrepancy not confined to that footnote alone. Readers are informed of the right to have arms that the English Bill of Rights granted to Protestants--then some 90 percent of the population--only as proof that "the English preferred to maintain a tight control of guns."
On to America. Here Bellesiles finds firearms rare, expensive, regulated, and useless, a contention made easier by his equation of firearms with military muskets, ignoring handguns, fowling pieces, and other light weapons. He reports that Americans "often perceived the ax as the equal of the gun" and refers to "the complete failure" of early settlers to care for guns or learn their use." Bellesiles writes that, while colonial legislatures "occasionally" required citizens to own firearms, they appreciated "how improbable it was for them to fulfill that goal." In fact, such laws were not occasional; they were routine, insistent, and enforced. Poor Virginians were provided with guns at reduced cost or set to work to earn their weapons. Historian Harold Gill, who examined 572 colonial Virginia inventories, found guns listed in nearly 80 percent of men's estates. Bellesiles claims weapons were usually housed in government arsenals, not homes. But Connecticut was typical in requiring every householder to "always b e provided with and have in continual readiness" a musket or other firearms.
Bellesiles attacks as myth the idea that Americans owned firearms for hunting. He reports that 80 travel accounts he surveyed, written in America between 1750 and 1860, fail to mention hunting with guns. Yet many of the very narratives he cites, such as the memoir of Indiana frontier life by Rush Baynard and Anne Newport Royall's Letters from Alabama, describe the general use of guns for hunting and self-defense. And while the Englishman Charles Augustus Murray, one of the writers cited by Bellesiles, found few "gentlemen" hunters in the 1830s, he noted that "nearly every man has a rifle, and spends part of his time in the chase." Bellesiles omits dozens of other travelers who describe widespread ownership of firearms, among them Alexis de Tocqueville. The famed French observer describes a typical "peasant's cabin" in Kentucky or Tennessee as containing "a fairly dean bed, some chairs, a good gun."
Bellesiles' main proof for the absence of firearms is his analysis of more than 11,000 probate inventories from 1765 through 1859. He found that only 14.7 percent of 18th-century inventories even mentioned a gun, and many of these were described as old or defective. Probate records, however, are an uncertain source: These inventories don't mention bequests prior to death; families sometimes take items before the probate is taken; and some probates deal only with real estate, not personal property. Harold Gill found it not unusual for a probate inventory of a known artisan to include nothing indicating his trade. Still, Bellesiles insists that probates contain an exact reference to every item, no matter how trivial, even those that had been passed on to a friend or relative before death.
Although this exhaustive probate research forms a major part of his evidence, Bellesiles does not give the numbers of probates for each time period or any particular county, only a list of county names. Where he is specific, he has distorted the findings. Take the case of 186 inventories from early Providence--unusual, he reports, in that 48 percent mentioned guns. "If one could imagine these 186 men as a militia company," Bellesiles tells us, "half would be unarmed and a third armed with guns too old for service. And yet they would have been one of the best-armed forces of their time." Intrigued, James Lindgren, a professor of law at Northwestern University, examined the inventories and found that "virtually everything Bellesiles said about these records was false." Not 48 percent but 62 percent mentioned guns, of which not the 33 percent Bellesiles claimed but only 9 percent were described as old. Lindgren also examined probates from one of Bellesiles' frontier counties and compared the numbers of guns lis ted to the other sorts of property mentioned. He found more guns than knives, more guns than books, more guns than Bibles.
Finally, we come to a more disturbing sort of misrepresentation. Bellesiles quotes George Washington's report on the state of the militia in 1756: "Many of them [are] unarmed, and all without ammunition or provision." Bellesiles adds that Washington found in one company only 25 of more than 70 men "had any sort of firearms." Yet historian Clayton Cramer found Washington was referring not to the general state of the militia, as Bellesiles would have us conclude, but, in Washington's words, to "the odd behaviour of the few Militia that were marched hither from Fairfax, Culpeper, and Prince William counties, Many of them unarmed."
Of the Militia Act of 1792, which enrolled all free white men between the ages of 18 and 45, Bellesiles writes that "Congress took upon itself the responsibility of providing [their] guns, and specified that within five years all muskets 'shall be of bores sufficient for balls of the eighteenth part of a pound.'" In fact, the law states that "every citizen so enrolled and notified, shall within six months thereafter, provide himself with a good musket or firelock" and other accoutrements (emphasis added). For tallies of firearms, Bellesiles uses a series of Massachusetts and federal censuses of militia firearms as if they were complete surveys of all civilian guns, and he omits tallies from federal arsenals.
Enough said. Point after point meant to illustrate a nearly gun-free early America is, upon examination, unsupported by the copious sources Bellesiles cites. He sidesteps counter-evidence. He ignores or dismisses statements by John Adams, Patrick Henry, Noah Webster, Richard Henry Lee, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and others to the effect that their countrymen were well-armed.
New views of history are useful. They provoke historians to re-examine their ideas and their evidence. Sometimes that evidence is found wanting, but not this time. Michael Bellesiles' eagerness to "bust a myth" about America's gun culture has induced him to create one.
Joyce Lee Malcolm (firstname.lastname@example.org), a professor of history at Bentley College and a senior fellow in the MIT Security Studies Program, is the author of To Keep and Bear Arms: The Origins of an Anglo-American Right (Harvard).
Arming America: The Origins of a National Gun Culture, by Michael A. Bellesiles, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 640 pages, $30
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|Author:||Malcolm, Joyce Lee|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2001|
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