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The Gun Count That Won’t Add Up

When 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 didn’t wear much calico than, say, to proving Judge Roy Bean was a due process guy.

Bellesiles, a history professor at Emory University, had his book–Arming America: The Origins of a National Gun Culture–published 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.

"This is the N.R.A.’s worst nightmare," the book’s 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. Barnum’s day, there are now numerous suckers born every minute, and the Bellesiles/Knopf sideshow began playing the big venues.

Gun-control advocates slavered over the new tin grail in their insufferable quest to convince us that the Second Amendment couldn’t 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.

Eloquent, rave reviews flowed. Columbia University’s Bancroft Prize, the plum for historians who aren’t 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 not.

In 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.

Asked 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. That’s just for the quantitative parts of his work–counting 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.

Challenged 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.

While 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 book’s 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.

Research 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.

Our government policies are corrupt, say some professors. Don’t 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.

What 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.

However 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?

[Posted December 20, 2001]


February 12 , 2002
Counting Guns: Emory University Opens Inquiry into History Professor’s Research

Responding 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.

When 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 professor’s claims regarding the number of and attitudes toward guns in colonial America.

The book won the Bancroft Prize, sometimes described as "coveted" (perhaps not as much as thy neighbor’s 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.

The 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.

"The only thing we’re concerned about is research misconduct, not errors or interpretations of fact or miscountings," said Emory’s Interim Dean Robert Paul, in announcing the review. While that standard may, in fact, be appropriate for proceedings that could lead to the professor’s dismissal, it is not a beacon of academic excellence. Whatever the outcome, it’s still a long way off, as the initial review process will only determine if there is sufficient evidence to mount a formal inquiry.



October 31 , 2002
Academic "Gunned Down" in Plain Sight

The 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."

(For background on the Bellesiles story, click here)

To 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.

Professor 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.

Administrators 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 believe.


January 16 , 2003
From Bang to Whimper: Final Rites for Arming America

When 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.

Shortly 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.

Bearing 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.

For background and perspective on the Bellesiles controversy, click here.
To download author Clayton Cramer's critique of Bellesiles' book, click here

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