Part 2 Michael A. Bellesiles: Mega Anti-Gun-Nut

Larry Pratt

Not surprisingly, the publisher of Professor Michael A. Bellesiles’ book, Alfred A. Knopf, effusively praises Arming America: The Origins Of A National Gun Culture as a book that will “completely transform America’s gun debate.” To convince us this is so, a press release accompanying the book features quotes from various individuals. These comments include the following:

“A myth-busting tour de force… deeply researched, brilliantly argued… good history…. an authoritative account…. sensible analysis… a superb piece of historical work…. a classic work of significant scholarship…. an eye-opener.”

But, a growing number of gun and Second Amendment scholars, and other academics qualified to critique Bellesiles’ book, are blowing holes in it the size of the Grand Canyon. The most documented-in-detail, devastating demolition to date we have seen is an as yet unpublished 57-page paper by James Lindgren and Justin Lee Heather of Northwestern University titled “Counting Guns In Early America.” Lindgren is a Professor Of Law and Director of the Demography of Diversity Project. He has a law degree from the University of Chicago, a B.A. from Yale and he’s currently a Ph. D. student in sociology concentrating on social statistics. Heather has an A.B. from Dartmouth and is expected to get his law degree from N.U. in June of this year.

To put it charitably, Lindgren/Heather cast serious doubts on Bellesiles’ assertion that he examined, among other things, 11,000 probate inventories to reach his conclusion that gun ownership was the exception in early America. In an abstract of their paper, they say that to determine gun ownership from probate inventories they examined three databases in detail: Alice Hanson Jones’ national sample of 919 inventories (1774); 149 inventories from Providence, Rhode Island (1679-1726); and the Gunston Hall Plantation’s sample of 325 inventories from Maryland and Virginia (1740-1810). They also discuss: A sample of 59 probate inventories from Essex County, Massachusetts (1636-1650); and Anna Hawley’s study of 221 Surry County, Virginia estates (1690-1715).

Lindgren/Heather report: “Guns are found in 50-73% of the male estates in each of the five databases and in 6-38% of the female estates in each of the first four databases. Gun ownership is particularly high compared to other common items (emphasis mine). For example, in 813 itemized male inventories from the 1774 Jones national database, guns are listed in 54% of estates, compared to only 30% of estates listing any cash, 14% listing swords or edge weapons, 25% listing Bibles, 62% listing any book, and 79% listing any clothes….

“The picture of gun ownership that emerges from these analyses directly contradicts the assertions of Michael Bellesiles…. Contrary to [his] claims, there were high numbers of guns, guns were much more common than swords or other edge weapons, women in 1774 owned guns at rates (18%) higher than Bellesiles claimed men did in 1765-90 (14.7%), and 83-91% of gun-owning estates listed at least one gun that was not old or broken.”

Lindgren/Heather say they replicated all the portions of Bellesiles’ study where he both counted guns in probate inventories and cited his sources. They conclude that Bellesiles appears to have “substantially misrecorded or misremembered” the 17th and 18th century probate data he presents.

In the body of their paper, Lindgren/Heather say Bellesiles claims to have used many sets of probate data, “but in his book he cites only two sets that he apparently used — and so far he has not supplied citations for others.” Nearly everything he says about the the Providence estates “is mistaken.”

Lindgren/Heather say: “Without data, without counts, without sources, Bellesiles has not done a ‘study’ of probate records in any conventional sense. Our efforts to get Bellesiles to release his totals for any groups of counties for any period, to release his criteria for what a record is, and to release his list of counties for each period has yielded no direct answers to our specific questions. Instead, he sent several friendly responses, some quite lengthy, describing how he kept his tallies on yellow pads, how the yellow sheets got flooded and are now in his attic still wet, and what were his general criteria for deciding which counties are frontier counties.”

Lindgren/Heather note that the American Historical Association’s “Statement On Standards Of Professional Conduct” (revised May, 1999 edition) provides: “Historians should carefully document their findings and thereafter be prepared to make available to others their sources, evidence, and data….”

Lindgren/Heather say that Bellesiles “is virtually alone among historians who work with probate records in thinking that they are more or less complete…. For example, 23% of the inventories in the leading colonial database of 919 inventories include no clothes of any kind. Unless at their deaths 23% of the wealthholding males and females in colonial America were nudists every day all day long, inventories do not scrupulously record ‘every item in an estate'” (emphasis in original).

Lindgren/Heather say: “Whenever Bellesiles writes about guns in probate records, he makes an incredibly large number of misstatements. These misstatements go, not only to trivialities, but to the heart of the matter — the frequency and condition of guns and the sorts of people who owned them.”

In an interview, Lindgren calls attention to page 445 of Bellesiles’ book, a table that says the national average percentage of probate inventories listing firearms for one period is 14.7%. He says: “Does this look at all plausible? This mean of 14.7% — you can’t even get there if there’s more than 200 cases in the South and you know there are thousands. Why aren’t there any numbers on these tables? Why doesn’t the chart match the data above it? 14.7% of what?! What are the cell sizes here? What are the sample sizes? He has not been willing to release sample sizes. He just goes and attacks everyone who asks him a question instead of answering the question.”

“[Bellesiles writes about there being] three rifles on the frontier in 1200 records. This is just fantastically implausible and it’s been shown to be false. The idea that no women owned guns in 11,000 records he looked at is a ludicrous statement.”

Well, amen! And that’s why we are confidently naming the “Nutty Professor” Michael A. Bellesiles as our Anti-Gun-Nut Of The Century.

In my next column, I will report more convincing and compelling critiques of Arming America: The Origins Of A National Gun Culture — a book which, whatever else it may be, is not deeply researched, brilliantly argued, good history, authoritative, sensible, or significant scholarship. But, the book is an eye-opener. It has opened our eyes to the author’s anti-gun, anti-Second Amendment agenda.