Part 18 Michael A. Bellesiles: Mega Anti-Gun-Nut

Larry Pratt

National Review magazine is another national publication which has taken a close look at Michael A. Bellesiles’ book Arming America: The Origins Of A National Gun Culture (Knopf, 2000) and found it to be “disarmed by its own dishonesty.”

In an excellent example of investigative journalism, NR Editorial Associate Melissa Seckora begins her devastating piece (October 1, 2001) by quoting Bellesiles as saying in his book: “America’s gun culture is an invented tradition.” To which she replies: “Bellesiles has done some inventing of his own. His book… is one of the worst cases of academic irresponsibility in memory.”

For openers, Seckora looks at Bellesiles’ claim that he counted guns in probate records of the estates of people who died in 1849 and ’50 or 1858 and ’59 in San Francisco. But, she says, his reported research here is “based on nothing,” on data “that simply do not exist. The problem is that… all [these] probate records… were destroyed in the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire.”

Seckora quotes Rock Sherman of the California Genealogical Society as saying: “I am unaware of the existence of any surviving San Francisco probate files for 1849-1859. If this involves an out-of-body experience, I’d like to know how to pull it off.”

Seckora says Bellesiles has embellished his story by saying he did this probate research at the Superior Court in San Francisco. But, the Deputy Clerk of this court, Clark Banayad, says flatly: “Every record at [this Court] predating 1906 was destroyed by fire, or other causes, in the 1906 earthquake.” Kathy Beals, author of three books on San Francisco’s early probate records, says that “to my knowledge, there are no official probate files in existence for years prior to 1880, and only scraps from 1880 to 1905.”

When Seckora confronts Bellesiles, and informs him that the probate records he says he used cannot be found at the San Francisco Superior Court, he says: “Did I say San Francisco Superior Court? I can’t remember exactly. I’m working off a dim memory. Now, if I remember correctly, the Mormon Church’s Family Research Library has these records. You can try the Sutro Library, too.”

But, once again (surprise!), Bellesiles appears to be in error. Martha Whittaker, a reference librarian at San Francisco’s Sutro Library, tells Seckora that the probate records mentioned by Bellesiles do not exist. Whittaker says: “All official probate records were destroyed by the San Francisco earthquake and fire because the city hall burned down.”

As for that Mormon library, Elaine Haselton, supervisor of public affairs there, tells Seckora that this library has an index of all estates in probate in the city and county of San Francisco from 1850, but this index does not list information about gun ownership. Haselton says: “The index only lists names and locations of the actual probate records. It does not list possessions.”

Seckora notes that the previously mentioned Court and two libraries are not the only places Bellesiles has said he used but turned out not to have had the materials he said they had. He has said he did some probate research at the Federal Archives in East Point, Georgia. But, when this was checked, it was learned that these Archives did not have what he said they had. OK, said, Bellesiles, he might have been mistaken. His “new story” was that he went around the country doing most of his probate research in over 30 different county or state archives looking at original records, not microfilm of the originals, as he first claimed.

Seckora says: “One wonders how he could have forgotten whether he did his research in a single library near his office or in more than 30 archives around the country.” Good question.

Seckora quotes several scholars who have serious problems with the accuracy of Bellesiles’ book. One of these individuals is Randolph Roth of Ohio State University, the leading expert on homicide in early America. He reportedly found “several major major problems” with Bellesiles’ homicide counts. He says the only way a scholar can fix his mistakes is if he shares his data and makes clear “exactly what sources” he looked at. Roth adds: “Michael hasn’t done that yet. That is a big problem.”

Finally, in an article distributed by United Press International (10/3/2001), and written by Culture Correspondent Lou Marano, the head of Emory University’s History Department, James Melton, it is said that Melton and Emory College Dean Robert Paul “are troubled by discrepancies between Michael Bellesiles’ citations and what reporters have found in primary sources.” They have asked him to write a point-by-point defense of his book Arming America.

In this UPI piece, when asked about some of the criticisms of his book by Bentley College Professor Janet Malcolm, author of the 1994 book To Keep And Bear Arms: The Origins of An Anglo-American Right, Bellesiles says that what Malcolm has said could be “the beginning of what could be a constructive dialogue.” But, one more time, Bellesiles is wrong. Any real “constructive dialogue” will be the beginning of nothing. It will be the end of his academic career.