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Disarming Bellesiles

5/31/2006

When Michael Bellesiles' book, "Arming America: The Origins of a National Gun Culture" (Knopf, 2000) first came out, it was heralded by reviewers across the country as a rewrite of U.S. history.

The thesis of the book is that there were few firearms in colonial America, and those that did exist were largely broken, ineffective, inaccurate and inferior — even to Indian archery equipment of that day.

Bellesiles' book contains voluminous referencing of historical documents, including probate wills, diaries and even some early sporting magazines to support his thesis that firearms in colonial America were no good or numerous until the Civil War.

He then argues that following the Civil War the NRA was created, which built up a "gun culture" in early America that contributes to contemporary firearms violence.

This may not sound right to you. Anyone who owns guns knows that if they work, you give them to friends or family if you get too old to use them.

But, a whole bunch of notable scholars swallowed Bellesiles' book — hook, line and sinker — and sung his praises, resulting in his receiving awards, including the coveted Bancroft Prize for history writing, as well as lucrative speaking engagements and fellowships.

While Bellesiles was soaking up the glory, some diligent scholars were checking his facts. Clayton Cramer, James Lindgren, Joyce Malcolm, David Kopel, Melissa Seckora and Donald Kates poked numerous holes in Bellesiles' arguments and revealed many serious flaws and inaccuracies.

This writer contributed to the rout by showing that Bellesiles' statistics and arguments about hunting and black powder weapons were equally misleading and inaccurate.

Bellesiles' responses to his critics were claims that his researched notes were destroyed in a flood that hit his office. He later contended that people had hacked into his website to change his data and his responses.

John Boorman recently made a fine feature film "The Tailor of Panama" about a tailor who starts telling lies that ultimately start a war. As more studied reviews came in, it appeared that Bellesiles' book was a "Tailor of Panama" book.

His defense added more fuel to the fire. Researchers found that some of the records he reported reviewing did not exist, such as those for San Francisco that were destroyed by the great quake and fire.

And when independent scholars could find the records that he said he had reviewed, a re-evaluation of the data often did not find at the same conclusions as Bellesiles had claimed

As evidence of fraud and chicanery began to mount, Emory University commissioned a group of three noted historians to study the charges of "scholarly misconduct."

Bellesiles resigned from Emory University in October after the investigation issued a report that found "evidence of falsification," "serious failures and carelessness in the gathering and presentation of archival records and the use of quantitative analysis" and "contravened" norms of historical scholarship.

And on Dec. 7, 2002, Columbia University's Trustees voted to rescind the Bancroft Prize that was awarded last year to Michael Bellesiles.

The Trustees made the decision based on the investigation of charges of scholarly misconduct against Bellesiles by Emory University, and other assessments by professional historians.

They concluded that Bellesiles had violated basic norms of scholarship and the high standards expected of Bancroft Prize winners.

The Bancroft Prize, which is awarded by Columbia University, and is the premier award for history scholarship, is supposed to honor "only books of enduring worth and impeccable scholarship that make a major contribution to our understanding of the American past."

How did this happen?

Simon and Schuster editor-in-chief Michael Korda pointed out in "Brill's Content," that the early glowing reviews of "Arming America" were most likely not due to the fact that the reviewers had gone over Bellesiles' research to check its accuracy, but because they had an anti-gun bias and wanted to believe that what he was saying was true.

I should not have to tell you that there is an anti-gun and anti-hunting bias in the general media. It is well documented.

The Media Research Center recently reported that over a two-year period, anti-gun stories outnumbered pro-gun stories by a ratio of nearly 10-1, even though some 35 million Americans enjoy firearms shooting sports, which are safer than ping-pong, according to the National Safety Council.

Considering the amount of anti-gun and anti-hunting press out there, the fact that enough of the media were willing to listen to those people (hereinafter called "giraffe's") who were willing to stick their necks out and say that "the emperor has no clothes," says that all hope is not lost.

Had the Bellesiles book not been exposed, it could have rewritten U.S. history — and perhaps even been used to contradict the interpretation of the Second Amendment that all people have the right to keep and bear arms.

And there's more …

One down, but then on the Dec. 1, 2002, episode of "60 Minutes," the crusty curmudgeon commentator Andy Rooney called the Burlington, Vt., decision to use archers to cull urban deer herds "barbaric," because, Rooney said, "Imagine all the places you could hit a deer with an arrow and not kill it."

Rooney is not a scholar. He is a sometimes-funny journalist who apparently does not like hunting, especially archery. I hope that you will let "60 Minutes" know what you think of what Rooney had to say.

Those of us who helped expose Bellesiles' masquerade are celebrating, but the fight was defensive, not offensive. There will be others.

Rooney got his licks in with a sneaky punch, then walked away laughing. Unless he apologizes, he's scored a point for the antis, and their totals in the mass media are getting pretty high.

The shooting sports community is doing a good job of talking to each other. But if we want to keep our sports alive, we have got to start doing a better job of taking the initiative and educating the general public about who we are and what we are about. A good offense is the best defense.

Until hunters and shooters can get their story out to the mainstream public and show it how shooting sports are good for people and how much conservation work hunters are doing, our species will be an endangered one forever caught up in fighting brushfires.

Always being on the defensive draws away resources and money that could be spent doing more good conservation work, teaching people to shoot safely and responsibly and creating more places to shoot and hunt.

James Swan is the author of the book "In Defense of Hunting."

To purchase a copy of the title, click here. To learn more about Swan,
visit his website.

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