Part 19 Michael A. Bellesiles: Mega Anti-Gun-Nut

Larry Pratt

Melissa Seckora, an editorial associate at National Review magazine, is one of very few journalists who has cared enough about the truth to do some original investigative reporting on Emory University History Professor Michael A. Bellesiles’ hideously inaccurate book Arming America: The Origins Of A National Gun Culture (Knopf, 2000). In her most recent piece (11/26/2001), Seckora takes a close look at Bellesiles’ supposed reply to his critics in the November, 2001, issue of the newsletter of the Organization Of American Historians.

Seckora begins by quoting Bellesiles as saying it is “the duty of any scholar to take responsibility for errors and to endeavor to correct them.” But, she concludes: “Bellesiles does not correct any of the serious, carefully documented criticisms of scholars who have taken the time to review his sources…. [his book] represents one of the worst cases of academic irresponsibility in memory…. Even when Bellesiles comes close to giving some sort of explanation for his inaccurate gun counts, he manages to give responses that are directly contrary to the ones he has given before, and are still wrong…. Instead of responding in a careful way to the criticism from fellow academics, Michael Bellsiles has produced a response that is as inadequate and inaccurate as his book.”

Seckora quotes James Lindgren, a Northwestern University law professor who has identified many errors in Bellesiles’ work, as saying: “His errors in using sources are dramatic and go to the heart of his book’s argument — how many guns there were, who owned them, where they were kept, what condition they were in, how they were used, and how important they were in early America.”

Don Hickey, a professor of history at Wayne State College, who peer reviewed Bellesiles’ earlier work, is quoted as saying: “These criticisms have convinced me that Bellesiles misread, misused, and perhaps even fabricated some of his evidence.” Though he believes it is still possible that Bellesiles’ thesis may be partly correct, Hickey says: “I no longer believe that his evidence proves his thesis.”

Seckora reports that the faculty at Emory are following the Bellesiles story more closely now. She quotes one Emory professor as telling her: “A number of [us at Emory] think the questions that have been raised by critics whose motivations are not in any way political, are exceptionally serious.”

Seckora says some of “the most significant statements” in Arming America are “based” on “data that do not exist.” For example, Bellesiles told her he reviewed documents at the San Francisco Superior Court that were actually destroyed by fire in the 1906 earthquake. When confronted with this fact, Bellesiles said he was working from a “dim memory,” that these records were in the Mormon Church’s Family Research Library and the Sutro Library.

Seckora checks. Surprise! These libraries say the records Bellesiles refers to do not exist at these libraries.

Then Bellesiles tells The Chronicle Of Higher Education he’s located these documents and sent for them. But, strangely, in his OAH reply, he makes no mention of finding these documents. Says Seckora: “Instead, he changes his story again in an apparent attempt to admit some error. He says: ‘I completely forget in which of several California archives I read what I recall to be twelve probate records from 1859 to 1860 with San Francisco as the stated location.'”

But, says Seckora: “This conflicts with what he told me in September — that he looked at ‘a few hundred cases’ in both San Francisco and Los Angeles. Mysteriously, he adds the year 1860, which is not in the sample in his book.”

Seckora also reports on an upcoming issue of The William And Mary Quarterly which will contain an article by Randolph Roth of Ohio State University, one of the leading authorities on homicide in early America. In this piece, Roth points out, among other things, that Bellesiles’ error rate for homicides in the Plymouth Colony for a 46-year period is 100 percent. In Arming America Bellesiles said there were no prosecutions for homicide in this Colony during this time period.

And on and on and on it goes. Check out and examine closely virtually anything Bellesiles states as fact in Arming America and it will never be exactly as Bellesiles says it is. Never.

Bellsiles does do well, however, at responding to charges nobody has heard of. For example, he says he’s been told he did not discuss Daniel Morgan and his riflemen. He says he’s been charged with calling for the confiscation of firearms. But, he says, he devoted six pages to Morgan and his men; he denies the second accusation. Says Seckora: “There is just one problem with this: No scholar or journalist has ever heard these criticisms before.”