Part 13 Michael A. Bellesiles: Mega Anti-Gun-Nut

Larry Pratt

Before one calls a man a liar, one must be very careful. So, very carefully, we say Michael A. Bellesiles is a liar regarding his views on the Second Amendment. How so? Let us count the ways.

In his interview with us at Columbia University (4/19/2001), we asked Bellesiles if he thinks the Second Amendment protects the right of private persons to keep and bear arms or is this only a right for the State? He replied: “I still haven’t made up my mind yet…. I’m trying to work this out.”

But, Bellesiles is lying. He has made up his mind. He is clearly against the so-called Standard Model which views the Second Amendment as primarily empowering individual American citizens to own a gun for self-defense and, if necessary, to counter government tyranny by means of armed popular resistance.

In the New Republic magazine (1/22/2001), Bellesiles’ book Arming America was reviewed by Jackson Lears who teaches history at Rutgers University. Lears, a critic Bellesiles says he takes seriously, writes: “Indeed, the Second Amendment itself, in Bellesiles’ reading, was not meant to sanction individual gun ownership. Quite the contrary: it was designed to ‘continue the legal British tradition of controlling the supply of and access to firearms’…. The Second Amendment, Bellesiles argues persuasively, must be seen as an effort to refine and to clarify that control, and not as an affirmation of an individual right to bear arms.”

In an interview with David Bowman published by the Internet publication (9/7/2000), Bellesiles says the Second Amendment was conceived by James Madison in the context of the national crisis of our War for Independence when there was not sufficient firearms, when a majority of Americans didn’t know how to use firearms. He adds: “It would be a very different story if we were to rewrite the Second Amendment today from the perspective of a gun enthusiast. It would probably be exactly what they claim it is: That the individual’s right to own firearms will not be infringed under any circumstances. But that’s not what the Second Amendment says.”

In an interview on National Public Radio’s Fresh Air program (9/26/2000), Bellesiles was asked: “So the idea of a well-regulated militia and people having arms for that would be the equivalent now of people having arms who are in the National Guard.” He replies: “Yes, that’s exactly correct….” He’s also asked, in this disgustingly soft-ball interview (our tax dollars at work!): “Do you think that the gun lobby in America has been drawing upon false history to justify its desire to prevent any further regulation of guns?” He replies, in part: “If I may restate that, I think they have been drawing upon a mythologized past to justify their position in terms of opposing any gun regulation today. I think that is correct.”

The Volume 76, Number One, 2000 issue of the Chicago-Kent Law Review was devoted to numerous articles trashing the Standard Model of the Second Amendment. This symposium was edited by the appropriately named Carl T. Bogus. One article in this publication is by Bellesiles and is titled “The Second Amendment In Action.” In his piece Bellesiles says the Standard Model “usually takes a non-historical perspective, preferring to hunt for supportive quotations while subjecting well-known statements to excruciating linguistic deconstruction rather than undertaking the hard and time-consuming task of archival research.” This “postmodernist perspective,” he says, “is, of course, blasphemy to a historian…. The Second Amendment confirmed [a] commitment to organize and arm a militia.”

In the U.S. Court Of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, there was a case (No. 99-10331) called United States of America v. Timothy Joe Emerson. In this case there was a brief filed for an anti-gun group of law professors and historians in support of the government’s anti-individual right interpretation of the Second Amendment. Bellesiles was one of those signing this brief.

In an interview, Brooklyn Law School Professor David Yassky, who organized the signers of this brief, told us that he was reluctant to characterize Bellesiles’ position on the Second Amendment. But, he says: “It’s safe to say he rejects the Standard Model.” Well, the standard model is the scholarly name for the individual right to keep and bear arms view of the Second Amendment.

In the Fall, 1998, issue of the Law And History Review, in an article titled “Gun Laws In Early America: The Regulation Of Firearms Ownership, 1607-1794,” Bellesiles calls advocates of the Standard Model “master rhetoricians” who do things like “stringing together… carefully selected quotes.” He says it is his contention “that the early American legislatures shared the British perception that gun ownership should be precisely constrained by law…. The bottom line was state control.”

But, about one thing in this article, Michael A. Bellesiles is absolutely correct. He says that the discussions of this subject “are far from over.” Indeed. And the more discussion there is, and the more his supposed scholarship is examined, the worse the lying Mr. Bellesiles looks.

A final note, for now, regarding the so-called Standard Model. In the Internet publication Lingua Franca Features: The Review Of Academic Life Online (Volume 10, No. 1, February, 2000), there’s an article by Chris Mooney titled “Liberal Legal Scholars Are Supporting The Right To Bear Arms. But Will Historians Shoot Them Down?” In this piece, Mooney says that since 1989 “legal scholars have turned en masse to the individual-rights view (of the Second Amendment), filling law reviews with what may be more than a hundred articles defending this position…. Today, the Standard Model appears to be on the verge of graduation from the law review to the courthouse” with many judges sharing this view.