Gun Count That Wont Add Up
Michael Bellesiles book on gun ownership in colonial America
was published about a year ago, it seemed odd, slight, skewed. Even
if its revisionist contention that few Americans owned guns before
the Civil War were true and impeccably documented, that is hardly
the stuff of a Eureka moment. It seemed more akin to discovering
that frontier women didnt wear much calico than, say, to proving
Judge Roy Bean was a due process guy.
a history professor at Emory University, had his bookArming
America: The Origins of a National Gun Culturepublished
by Alfred A. Knopf, the venerable literary publisher. Perhaps sensing
that a study based largely on county courthouse probate records
detailing the estate inventories of deceased colonials was not an
instant grabber, Knopf reached deep into the muck to promote attention.
is the N.R.A.s worst nightmare," the books jacket
copy asserted. Sure enough, every time we see Wayne LaPierre, he
insists that our right to keep and bear arms depends on the accurate
count of how many colonials passed working flintlocks to their progeny.
Without that ever so critical historical component, "shall
not be infringed" must be just another of those pesky, confusing
constitutional phrases. Still, given the population explosion since
P.T. Barnums day, there are now numerous suckers born every
minute, and the Bellesiles/Knopf sideshow began playing the big
advocates slavered over the new tin grail in their insufferable
quest to convince us that the Second Amendment couldnt possibly
mean what it says. If, despite powerful and numerous contemporary
references by the likes of T. Jefferson and A. de Toqueville, the
good professor could find only a few broken guns in our history,
then another myth done gone. In fact, "myth-buster" became
a catchphrase to describe the book.
rave reviews flowed. Columbia Universitys Bancroft Prize,
the plum for historians who arent Stephen Ambrose, was awarded.
This book, this research had made history vital to our time.
Other historians stood in line to bless such achievement. Some did
an academic culture of more authorities than subjects, skeptical
historians with their own knowledge of the period began to question
Professor Bellesiles research. The nightmare soon became his.
At this point, the number and variety of accusations against the
accuracy of his research are astounding, and they grow as additional
scholars weigh in.
to supply his data for verification, a fundamental requirement of
all serious research, Professor Bellesiles says he cannot; it was
destroyed in an office flood. In addition, "hackers" corrupted
information on his website, but officials at Emory have found no
evidence of that. Some records he says he used simply do not exist
where he first said they were, and may not exist anywhere. Recounts
of records that can be found show an appalling degree of error.
Thats just for the quantitative parts of his workcounting
the guns. Scholars are also uncovering misstatements and misinterpretations
of historical references and documents. Regardless of the aspect
of Bellesiles research other scholars review, problems abound.
directly by his critics with major discrepancies, the professor
is said to change his story, and the musty chase begins anew. Supporters
have either gone missing, acknowledge their own frustrations with
his shifting explanations or are wobbling toward the exit.
academic inquiry moves slowly, the better to diminish untoward embarrassment
of the elite, people have been convicted in courts with far less
evidence than that already amassed against Professor Bellesiles
research. Yet he is still a history professor at Emory University.
The Bancroft Prize has not been withdrawn. Knopf stands behind its
book. However, contrary to the books inflammatory jacket copy,
those who have fired the best shots are not advocates but circumspect
scholars who can read, count and review the historical record. Among
them are James Lindgren of Northwestern University Law School, Joyce
Malcolm of Bentley College, Robert Churchill of Princeton and Randolph
Roth of Ohio State. Investigative reporting by David Mehegan of
The Boston Globe and Melissa Seckora of National Review
has carried the story forward.
is the lifeblood of knowledge, yet far too much of it has become
the counterfeit coin of a bankrupt academic realm. Study contradicts
study, with the latest claiming legitimacy against others possessed
of flaws as plentiful as sand, all produced by recipients of advanced
degrees, all fully funded by public and private money. Meanwhile,
the population grows more ignorant of basic information, more confused
by the cacophony of oracles who, after all, have been subject to
peer review as rigorous as the standards of moral relativism and
awarded the job tenure unavailable to mere mortals.
government policies are corrupt, say some professors. Dont
forget the corporations, say students who seem not to grasp the
organizational status of future employers. Keep sending us your
money and your children, say university presidents.
does Professor Bellesiles say? Not much, these days. But his story,
only the most current and far from the most significant in terms
of academic controversy, speaks volumes about where many of us might
look for the root of some problems.
many guns there were in colonial America, current sales are up dramatically,
as citizens seek protection against perceived threats, foreign and
domestic. But what is our protection against those who profess to
be educating our children, while in examples specific and general,
moral and intellectual, do not evidence sufficient responsibility
so to do?
December 20, 2001]
12 , 2002
Guns: Emory University Opens Inquiry into History Professors
to a protracted barrage of criticism aimed at alleged research
misconduct by one of its history professors, Emory University
has initiated a review of the allegations.
Michael Bellesiles Arming America: The Origins of
a National Gun Culture was published more than a year
ago, the book became a magnet for extravagant praise and gunophobic
rhetoric, as well as a target of reinvestigations of the professors
claims regarding the number of and attitudes toward guns in
book won the Bancroft Prize, sometimes described as "coveted"
(perhaps not as much as thy neighbors wife, but sufficient
unto getting historians all atwitter). It also sent a skeptical
posse of other historians back to the archives. Those they
could find, that is, because, along the way, Professor Bellesiles
research notes were "destroyed in an office flood,"
and his memory of the whereabouts of some of the records began
to play terrible tricks on him.
Emory investigation was announced as the William and Mary
Quarterly publishes a series of scholarly essays on the controversy,
along with a lengthy response by Professor Bellesiles.
only thing were concerned about is research misconduct,
not errors or interpretations of fact or miscountings,"
said Emorys Interim Dean Robert Paul, in announcing
the review. While that standard may, in fact, be appropriate
for proceedings that could lead to the professors dismissal,
it is not a beacon of academic excellence. Whatever the outcome,
its still a long way off, as the initial review process
will only determine if there is sufficient evidence to mount
a formal inquiry.
31 , 2002
"Gunned Down" in Plain Sight
saga of Michael Bellesiles is over, except for the whining,
which typically will not end. The Emory University history
professor who couldn't count guns in Colonial America has
"resigned," explaining that he couldn't continue to teach
in what he considers to be "a hostile environment."
background on the Bellesiles story, click
be sure, the just-released investigative report by an independent
committee made up of scholars from Harvard, Princeton and
the University of Chicago could well contribute to that "hostile
environment." Findings of falsified, misrepresented and exaggerated
research data tend to do that in academia. Add "unprofessional"
and "misleading" and not a few other carefully worded descriptions
of the professor's research for his book, Arming America:
the Origins of a National Gun Culture, and even the OK
Corral might be relatively less hostile.
Bellesiles believes it to be "just plain unfair" that the
criticism was aimed at "one small part" of his research and
worries about the future of "challenging scholarly books."
While a culture of victimization may dictate that kind of
claptrap, one yearns for anyone in America, man, woman or
child, when exposed as a bad actor, to admit culpability absent
a plea bargain.
of the Bancroft Prize and Professor Bellesiles' publisher
have a bit of cleaning up to do, but it would surprise us
not at all for him to retain the prize, on the basis that
he has suffered enough, and have his book stay in print, as
a public service, of course, so readers can have evidence,
at full cover price, for whichever conspiracy theory they
16 , 2003
Bang to Whimper: Final Rites for Arming America
we last wrote on the shameful saga of Emory University history
professor Michael Bellesiles in October, 2002, he had just
resigned that job. His book, Arming America: the Origins
of a National Gun Culture, had been discredited as a work
of falsified, misrepresented and exaggerated research. (For
extensive background on this story, click
here) The National Endowment for the Humanities
had jerked a fellowship.
before last Christmas, Columbia University finally took back
the Bancroft Prize, concluding, some time after the rest of
the world, that Bellesiles had "violated basic norms of scholarship."
Now, Alfred A. Knopf, the book's publisher, has pulled the
plug on publication.
perhaps the greatest responsibility of all Bellesiles' feckless
enablers, particularly in light of its gun slinging publicity
campaign for the book, Knopf found it difficult to confront
reality in its public statements, which characterized Bellesiles
as merely "a sloppy researcher." Right, and personal responsibility
is alive and well among the intellectual elite.
and perspective on the Bellesiles controversy, click here.
To download author Clayton Cramer's critique of Bellesiles' book,
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