Part 12 Michael A. Bellesiles: Mega Anti-Gun-Nut
(The following slightly edited exclusive interview with Michael A. Bellesiles was conducted on April 19, 2001, at Columbia University in New York City).
Q: Have you answered specifically any of your critics like James Lindgren, Joyce Lee Malcolm, Clayton Cramer?
A: It’s on my website.
Q: You’ve responded specifically to what they have written?
A: Yes. And I will be continuing to do so all summer. And I’m learning how to scan in illustrations so — in order to scan in the actual document so it will be visible on the website.
Q: What is the address of your website?
A: If you go to the History Department at Emory and just click on my name it’ll go right there. I don’t remember it off the top of my head.
Q: Is there anything written by Lindgren, Malcolm or Cramer that you’ve found to be wrong or mistaken?
A: Actually so much of what, to me, obviously from my perspective, so much of what’s been going on is raising up other evidence, which is certainly worth discussion — but someone comes up with one body of evidence doesn’t contradict someone else’s body of evidence. Right? So, for instance, Lindgren is using Alice Hanson Jones’ collection. And he’s right about what this collection has. It’s a different set of numbers. And in fact what I’m trying to do now on my website is — I’ve become suspicious of all these sample sets that take just a year or two because so many factors are dependent on the year or two chosen. So, Hanson Jones is at the very beginning of the Revolution when arms are being handed out by the various provincial governments. The sample set I used for that period was from 1765 and 1766. That was the period when arms had been turned in. So my figures were probably relatively low. Hanson Jones’ were relatively high. So what I’m doing now is taking a 20-30 year period in all these counties so that we can see if there is any variation over those years.
Q: But some of the criticism (like Lindgren’s) has been that he looked at some of what you say you looked at, and it does not say what you have said it says — that women did own guns and the percentage of gun ownership was much higher than you said.
A: Oh, certainly. I didn’t say that women didn’t own guns. There was a misunderstanding. And I’d like to clear this up. In my sample set I was trying to exclude the women because I thought the women would largely bias the sample because almost every collection I looked at — every total inventory file — I looked at for women did not have a gun. There were only a few. So if I included those I thought it would lower the figure and bias it in the direction of my argument. So I was looking at those men because I thought those were the most likely to have guns.
Q: So you never said or implied that women didn’t own guns?
A: I don’t think I did. If I did, it was a grammatical error.
Q: Cramer says you took a George Washington quote about the Virginia militia and did not use it correctly. Is that right?
A: I just don’t remember.
Q: Have you discovered anything that in retrospect you were wrong about or misstated?
A: There were several errors which I have corrected in the footnotes. I found four transpositions of numbers, which I’ve corrected. I found three misspellings.
Q: But nothing major?
A: One major is the message I sent to all the historical list serves I could is that I quoted the 1803 Militia Act and a paragraph from the 1792 Militia Act. And when I was rewriting the manuscript I did take out the sentence where I said, “and then 11 years later Congress revised the Act in this way.” So that was in error. This is being corrected in the revised edition.
Q: In an interview on a San Francisco radio station you expressed surprise that so many people view your book as anti-gun. But your book is an unrelieved trashing of our being a gun-loving, gun-centered, gun-crazy culture.
A: I don’t think so.
Q: How we’re obsessed with guns and —
A: No, no, no. Well, if I gave that impression —
Q: Two or three times you spoke about how central and important the gun is to America.
A: I believe that’s true.
Q: But where’s your data to support what you say? Less than half of all Americans even own guns.
A: Yeah, I understand that.
Q: You speak about Americans almost as if there is something psychopathic about our relationship to guns.
A: Oh, I see what you’re saying. Yeah. I will dwell on that because that might be a misperception that I created.
Q: Why isn’t there more in your book about the Second Amendment?
A: Because I’m personally opposed to gun control laws. I don’t want to see any extension of gun control laws.
Q: Really? You’re opposed to the Brady bill?
A: Yeah. For many reasons. One is that I think we haven’t been honest about what we hoped they would accomplish. But more importantly I think because enforcement of gun control laws in our history has been incredibly selective. It’s tended to be very bigoted. That’s my next book.
Q: But you’re not against gun control laws because they violate the right of private individuals to keep and bear arms. Do you think the Second Amendment protects the right of private persons to keep and bear arms or only the State?
A: I still haven’t made up my mind yet. I wrote an article for The Legal History Review and I thought, at the conclusion of my article, I was trying to carve a different terrain, that the Second Amendment was about creating an individual right collectively defined. In other words, the law is going to determine who does and does not get to enjoy that right. That’s true of every right…. I’m trying to work this out.
(NOTE: Not true. Some rights are unalienable, from God. In the 1876 Cruikshank case, the Supreme Court stated that the Second Amendment was not created by the U.S. government; it preceded it. Also, the Second Amendment says there shall be no infringement of this right!)
Q: Why do you think your book has been so loved by the pro-gun control people if you’re against gun control?
A: I don’t know. I really don’t.
Q: Do they know you’re against gun control?
A: Yeah. I generally made my opinion clear to them when they want me to speak for them. I won’t come and speak for gun control.
Q: Have any gun control groups asked you to speak?
A: They have. And [I’ve said] I will speak about historical issues. I will not speak about modern policy mostly because I’m not into that. I love history. I love the past.
Q: But you’ve also said you’re a gun owner for more than 30 years and that you’ve fired guns in many foreign countries. Presumably you’re a citizen of the United States.
A: That’s correct.
Q: So, why wouldn’t you have some passion about your right to keep and bear arms?
A: I just don’t have a passion — I’m sorry — in that way. I mean, for me shooting guns is enjoyable. It is.
Re: whether the Second Amendment protects the right of private individuals or only the State to keep and bear arms, he says:
As a historian, I would refer back to the Supreme Court decisions and State court decisions and I think — this is the way I’ve read it so far — is that in the last 20 years we’ve gotten into a situation where it is not at all clear what the judiciary thinks about our right to bear arms.
He says “no, of course not,” he is not prepared to automatically genuflect in a knee-jerk way to any Supreme Court or State court decisions on this issue (except that he does!).
He adds, re: why he says so little in his book about the Second Amendment, and why he doesn’t say he’s against gun control: “Let me give you an example. I’m personally opposed to abortion. And the Supreme Court has decided pretty strongly that people have a right to abortion. I think this is really wrong. But that doesn’t mean that I as a historian should be going around saying that the Supreme Court has made a great historical error. It has made an error based on my personal judgment.”
I point out that this is not a good analogy because his book is about guns, not abortion! So, it would have been perfectly appropriate to state clearly his views on the Second Amendment and gun control laws.
Q: Why are you against abortion?
A: Because I am a rather devout Christian, a Catholic. And I find it a violation of my moral standards.
Q: I get the feeling from reading your piece in the Atlanta paper that all the criticism of your book is really getting to you and wearing you down.
A: Oh, yes.
Q: But I wish that in your public writings that you’d concentrate on the serious critics of your book — people like Malcolm, Cramer, Lindgren — and not write about how anti-Semites are after you as if the only critics you have are Internet wackos and people who would have been liked by Goebbels. In other words, you had several hundred words in the Atlanta paper article to address your serious critics and you chose instead to give attention to people who deserve no publicity at all! Why don’t you take on the heavyweights, the big guys?
A: I haven’t seen any heavyweights or big guys.
Q: How about Malcolm?
A: I don’t agree with that formulation.
Q: She’s not a scholar who knows something about guns and history?
A: I think she’s a scholar. But, for instance, she characterized my book as saying that America was a gun-free society prior to the Civil War and that’s nonsense. That’s not what I said.
A: That’s what she said in her review in Reason magazine. I never said any such thing. So, I can’t take her seriously.
Q: You’re saying she used the actual words “gun-free”?
A: That’s what she said. And that’s not what my book says.
Q: So, who is a serious critic of yours, that you’ve read what he said and am taking it seriously?
A: People who have offered what I think are very interesting criticisms are Richard Slotkin (in the Atlantic) and Jackson Lears (in the New Republic). They offer very interesting criticisms, more from the Left.
Q: How about your notes? Are they dried out yet? Is that a true story you told Lindgren?
A: Of course it’s a true story. In the history building (Bowden Hall at Emory University), the plumbers were in there working on a Sunday and they did not reconnect the main pipes. They turned the water back on and all my notes got wet.
Q: For your whole book?
A: Yes. And most of them were useless and have been pulped. They were thrown away.
Q: All were in longhand?
A: Yes. All of it. Pencil on a legal pad. That’s the way I work.
A subsequent interview with school officials at Emery make it highly dubious that Bellesiles’ work was damaged by water at all. See an upcoming column entitled Bellesiles’ Dog Ate the Homework.