Part 22 Michael A. Bellesiles: Mega Anti-Gun-Nut

Larry Pratt

Well, now, finally, at long last, some good news about Michael A. Bellesiles’ Arming America: The Origins Of A National Gun Culture (Knopf, 2000). In a move that is way past due, a major pusher of Bellesiles’ awful book — the History Book Club (HBC) — is backing off of its support for this disgraceful, shoddy work masquerading as scholarship.

When the book first came out, it was reviewed for the HBC by University of Texas Law Professor Sanford Levinson who hailed it as “revisionist history at its best.” A few month after this review, in an interview, Levinson, to his credit, told us he would not repeat his praise and it would not surprise him if it turned out that Arming America was found to have some “fairly major problems.”

Well, to say that Arming America might be found to have some “fairly major problems” is like saying the Titanic had some “fairly major problems” with that iceberg — which it did, it sank! And like the Titanic, Bellesiles’ book is sinking, rapidly, as more scholars and journalists take a close look at it and blow it full of holes.

But, the History Book Club (HBC) seemed not to have noticed that Bellesiles and his book were going down for the proverbial third time. At the end of November (2001), we received in the mail, from the HBC, something called Editors’ Picks which contains a mention of Arming America by Assistant Editor Kalyani Fernando. She refers to Bellesiles’ (are you seated?) “careful and prodigious research”!

In an interview, Deborah Sinclaire, Editorial Director of the HBC, told us that yes, she is familiar with the criticism of Arming America, and she knows there is more to come. So, she says, they will be “changing a lot of the publicity for that book. We won’t be touting it as a carefully researched book. We might be offering it as a back-list because a lot of people want to read it for themselves and make some judgment calls on it.”

When asked about what, if anything, they will say to their hundreds of thousands of members who have read their praise of the Bellesiles book, Sinclaire says: “Well, we will be addressing that in future issues I’m sure.”

In the HBC’s literature, Sinclaire tells members that the HBC “conducts what we believe is the most exhaustive search and screening process in history publishing. A board of scholars and historians reviews hundreds of books from which we select more than 150 titles to offer in each Review.”

OK. So, we ask Sinclaire: “How could the Bellesiles book slip by all your experts? Are you investigating how this could happen and why other scholars and journalists had to expose this book as a fraud?”

Sinclaire: “No, actually I am not. Perhaps [I will]. I have not been working for the Club very long. So, I will look into that…. [The book] fooled a lot of people across a lot of fields.”

In another interview, Kalyani Fernando is even more forthcoming and candid regarding Arming America. We ask her: “How can you say the research by Bellesiles was ‘careful’ when the book has been, and still is being, demolished by various scholars and journalists? Are you aware of this?”

Fernando: “Yes, I am. At the time I read it, obviously, I considered it to be carefully researched. I mean, obviously, I didn’t pursue any of the research he used. And that’s been shown to be, obviously, wrong. So, I’m very aware of the fact that it has been debunked in terms of the quality of research.”

Fernando says her review was written about four months ago. She says they are presently discussing how, exactly, they will tell their members about the unreliable nature of Arming America.

Well, good! It’s good to see that at least one organization, the History Book Club, is not defending Arming America and admitting, in so many words, that they were had by praising this wretched book.

But, to be credible, the HBC has to do more than simply stop praising Arming America and/or offering it as a back-list book. This is not enough. The HBC must apologize for foisting this fraudulent fable on its members, it should no longer offer the book at all and it should refund the money of any member who ordered it.