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Fall From Grace: Arming America and the Bellesiles Scandal (Part 1)


Bellesiles has dispersed the darkness that covered the gun’s early

history in America. He provides overwhelming evidence that our

view of the gun is as deep a superstition as any that affected Native

Americans in the 17th century.

—Garry Wills, New York Times1



Before there was a scandal, there was a book—Michael A. Bellesiles’s

Arming America: The Origins of a National Gun Culture. In this Review, I

not only discuss the book, benefiting from some of the substantial published

and unpublished literature on it, but review a little of the controversy—at

least the controversy as I understand it at the beginning of 2002.


Let me state my biases up front: I dislike guns; I have never owned a

gun; I have not touched one since the age of nine. Yet I don’t understand

the passion that people bring to the issue of their regulation. My own prior

writing on guns has been on the pro-gun-control side of the dispute, and

some of it is so free from passion as to be soporific.2


Arming America is a well-written and compelling story of how early

Americans were largely unfamiliar with guns until the approach of the Civil

War. It tells a wide-ranging, detailed, but relatively unnuanced story of

gunlessness in early America. Bellesiles writes: “[T]he vast majority of

those living in British North American colonies had no use for firearms,

which were costly, difficult to locate and maintain, and expensive to use.” 3


According to Bellesiles, in seventeenth-, eighteenth-, and early

nineteenth-century America there were very few guns.4 Privately owned

guns were mostly in poor working condition.5 By law, guns were not kept

in the home but rather stored in central armories,6 and guns were too

expensive for widespread private ownership.7 He even claims that men

generally were unfamiliar with guns and that they did not want guns8

preferring axes and knives instead, in part because guns were so inaccurate

that they were of little use. He argues that few settlers hunted,9 and implies

that axes made very good weapons in hunting.10 According to Arming

America, in battle “the ax [was often considered] the equal of a gun.” 11


Bellesiles claims that states enacted laws that restricted gun ownership

to white Protestants who owned property.12 White-on-white homicide was

rare in colonial America, according to Bellesiles, and guns were rarely the

weapon used in homicides.13 Guns were not culturally important, either:

Travel narratives do not show that guns were part of everyday life,14 even

on the frontier, and few people even wanted to own guns.15 At least in

probate records, women did not own guns.16 Since there were few guns, the

laws passed in the early nineteenth century restricting the right to carry

concealed weapons were directed at knives,17 not guns. He further claims

that the background of the Second Amendment shows that the Anti-

Federalists had no problem with restricting militia membership to those

above the lower social classes.18 Last, with a few exceptions, the militia

were extremely ineffective.19


Two meta-arguments by Bellesiles might have direct public policy

applications (though, as a work of history, Arming America does not

directly advocate any gun policies). One is that guns and violence go

together. In early America, he claims, we had very low gun ownership and

low homicide rates; after the Civil War, we had lots of guns and high

homicide rates.20 The second is that if guns were not widely owned, then it

is unlikely that gun owning was understood as an individual right in the

Second Amendment.


Since the book’s publication, scholars who have checked the book’s

claims against its sources have uncovered an almost unprecedented number

of discrepancies, errors, and omissions. When these are taken into account,

a markedly different picture of colonial America emerges: Household gun

ownership in early America was more widespread than today (in a much

poorer world).


Arming America is changing the way that some historians think about

their own profession and how some scholars in fields allied to history

regard historical research and publishing. Understanding this book and the

scandal it generated is important for scholars and teachers across the social

sciences, humanities, and law. Any graduate or professional student who

aspires to be an academic might profit by exploring the twists and turns of

the Bellesiles scandal.





In 1996 a well-regarded, but relatively obscure, historian at Emory

University, Michael A. Bellesiles, published an article in the Journal of

American History (JAH).21 It urged a mostly novel thesis about early

America—that there were few guns and that there was no gun culture until

the approach of the Civil War. His primary evidence was low counts of

guns in probate records, gun censuses, militia muster records, and homicide



The data fit together almost too neatly. In particular, if anyone had

looked closely at the probate data, they would have seen that it did not look

right. The regional differences were suspiciously slight; the increases over

time were extremely regular; the study did not indicate which counties were

in which categories; and in most unconventional fashion, the probate data

were published with no sample or cell sizes. The results were directly

contrary to the existing literature counting guns in probate records,22

including one source Bellesiles cited but did not discuss,23 all of which had

found substantial numbers of guns.


Last, the 1765-1790 data were mathematically impossible if there were

more than about 200 cases in his sixteen Southern counties over the twenty-six-

year period,