The American Gun Culture

Written by  Roger D. McGrath

From the print edition of The New American

“It’s alive. It’s alive. It’s alive!” So exclaimed Dr. Frankenstein when his monster with the brain of a criminal began to move after jolts of electricity. I now think of that famous scene when I see the fraudulent work of Michael Bellesiles, which was quoted and cited as fact recently by the mainstream media and liberal authors. I thought we had buried that corpse long ago.

This whole sorry saga starts back in 1996, when an article by Bellesiles was published in the Journal of American History. Bellesiles argued that during America’s Colonial and New Nation eras, guns were scarce, and Americans weren’t proficient in their use. There was no American gun culture. He claimed that not until the middle of the 19th century did a gun culture arise, artificially created by gun manufacturers through advertising and promotion. He later expanded the article into a book, Arming America: The Origins of a National Gun Culture, published in 2000.

Taken Aback by Claims

Bellesiles’ book was praised and promoted by the media and reviewed favorably and enthusiastically in academic journals. Many said it was the answer to the National Rifle Association’s argument that an armed citizenry was an American tradition going back to the earliest Colonial days. Now, they said, Bellesiles has proved Americans were not well armed and were not proficient with firearms — that was all an invention of the marketing department of gun manufacturers. Americans and guns was a myth. Hallelujah! The trustees of Columbia University awarded Arming America the esteemed Bancroft Prize for excellence in American history for the year 2000.

Most of us on the other side of the issue were shocked at Bellesiles’ claims. They were contrary to everything I, for one, knew about Colonial and New Nation American history. My e-mail traffic on the issue was heavy. I happened to be part of a network of Second Amendment and gun-rights advocates organized in the 1980s by Don Kates, an attorney and civil libertarian from San Francisco. He showed up at my office at UCLA one day after reading my Gunfighters, Highwaymen, & Vigilantes book and said, “Let’s talk guns.” He was about as far from the Left’s image of a “gun nut” as any human being could be. He was also the most knowledgeable person I had ever met on the Second Amendment and all constitutional and legal issues pertaining to guns. He wanted to organize proponents of the Second Amendment who taught in universities, especially those in history and law. Within a couple years, he had created a network that included an impressive array of scholars. With the arrival of the Internet, we all became connected with chain e-mail. Now, in reaction to Arming America, that chain was ablaze.

Most of us noticed individual problems with what Bellesiles had done. For example, one of his citations was for a volume of records I had wanted to use for my Gunfighters book. I had seen the source quoted and cited in the 19th-century works of Hubert Howe Bancroft, the great historian of California and the American West. Much to my dismay, I learned the volume had been destroyed in the great fire that followed the earthquake of 1906 in San Francisco. Mirabile dictu, Bellesiles quoted from the volume and cited it as if it existed.

Taking the lead in our group was Clayton Cramer, a software engineer, historian, and author of articles in gun magazines. He had recently earned a master’s degree in history, specializing in the New Nation era, and was familiar with many of the sources Bellesiles was citing. Cramer would soon be teaching in college as an adjunct professor. Through assiduous research, he discovered hundreds — yes, hundreds — of instances in which Bellesiles had cited sources that were not extant or were misrepresented, misquoted, or entirely falsified. Cramer also found quotations with words omitted or words inserted to change the meaning of the quoted material, as well as contrived statistical evidence and altered dates.

Unlike the immediate recognition and praise heaped upon Bellesiles by the liberal media and his fellow travelers in academe upon publication of Arming America, Cramer toiled in relative obscurity until his criticisms of Bellesiles’ work, at first publicized only by the various gun rights organizations, finally became so devastating they couldn’t be ignored. Bellesiles didn’t address the criticisms but relied on the Left’s favorite tactic: argumentum ad hominem — argue against the man, attack the messenger!  Cramer was nothing but, said Bellesiles, “a long time advocate of unrestricted gun ownership,” while, he, Bellesiles, was a professor at Emory University, who had “certain obligations of accuracy that transcend current political benefit.” more here: