Part 4 Michael A. Bellesiles: Mega Anti-Gun-Nut

Larry Pratt

Surprisingly, and strangely — for a man who insists he is a “gun enthusiast” — Prof. Michael A. Bellesiles says nothing explicit about his own position on the Second Amendment in his 603-page book Arming America: The Origins Of A National Gun Culture (Knopf, 2000). He also writes nothing at all — zip, zero, zilch — about the importance of guns in self-defense. This, too, is bizarre considering that studies show that as many as three million Americans annually defend themselves, family and/or property with guns.

In an interview published by (1/7/2001), Bentley College History Professor Joyce Lee Malcolm, author of To Keep And Bear Arms: The Origins Of An Anglo-American Right (Harvard University Press, 1996), says: “As someone who did a lot of work on the origins of the Second Amendment and the English experience with firearms, with their rights, I can certainly tell you that [Bellesiles] was happy to ignore any evidence that didn’t fit in with his thesis.”

OK. So, what is Bellesiles’ thesis regarding the Second Amendment? Well, as I say, he does not say, explicitly, in his book. But, he has said things in various interviews which I believe show clearly that he does not believe the Second Amendment protects the right of private persons to keep and bear arms.

For example, in an interview on National Public Radio’s “Fresh Air” program (9/26/2000), Bellesiles was asked this question: “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?”

Bellesiles: “Yes. That’s exactly correct….”

He is also asked this question: “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?”

Bellesiles: “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….” In other words, it is a myth — in this case meaning something that is false — to think that the Second Amendment Constitutionally protects against any infringement of any right of private individuals to keep and bear arms.

Incidentally, though this program was called “Fresh Air,” on the subject of guns it was the same old, tired, stale, anti-gun, hot air.

In another interview, on KQED Radio in San Francisco (11/14/2000), when a caller asks Bellesliles directly if he believes the Second Amendment protects an individual right or a right only of the government to keep and bear arms?, he replies:

“Well, my personal reading of the context of the Second Amendment… is that it is an individual right collectively defined. In other words, it was understood that those members of the community who were reliable citizens should be enrolled in the militia. And they were included under the protections of the Second Amendment. But, again, let me emphasize that the Second Amendment is simply a limitation on Federal authority. And the Supreme Court has continuously read it that way, that it in no way interferes with the states passing regulating legislation.”

At this point, the caller presses Bellesiles, saying: So, you don’t agree that the 10th and 14th Amendments give the right to keep and bear arms to the citizens of the various states? He replies: “Oh, my opinion doesn’t matter. What matters is what the Supreme Court has decided. And so far the Supreme Court has not incorporated the Second Amendment. If they decide to do so, I will understand their logic.”

When the caller, still not satisfied, asks Bellesiles to clear up his own view on the Second Amendment, he replies, in part, that he’s never taken a position “on current gun policy.” But, why not? If Bellesiles is, as he said on this program, a “gun enthusiast” and a gun owner for 35 years, why has he taken no position on “current gun policy”? Why has he been silent regarding those who want to, among other things, pass laws gutting the Second Amendment and banning the private ownership of all guns?

This makes no sense. I mean, here’s a guy who says he spent more than 10 years researching and writing a 603-page book about the history of guns in America. And he has never taken a position “on current gun policy”?!

This is weird. And what he says is dishonest. What Bellesiles means is that he has taken no explicit position on current gun policy. But, his entire book is, implicitly, an attack on guns. He’s a “gun enthusiast” all right. He’s enthusiastically against guns!

Finally, an example of Bellesiles’ intellectual dishonesty is his distorted characterization of the work of gun scholar John Lott. When asked in this KQED interview about Lott’s scholarship, Bellesiles notes, dismissively, that he’s a person with a “very simple argument” summarized in his book title More Guns, Less Crime. Bellesiles adds, sneeringly, that if this was true it would, of course, mean that we are “the most crime-free society in the world.”

At this point, as a guest who was on this program with him, I told Bellesiles that Lott’s thesis stands up very well. I told him that in the parts of our country where there are the most guns we, in fact, do have the lowest crime rates. Conversely, the murder rates are highest in the cities which have the strictest gun-control laws, where people are not able to protect themselves — cities such as Washington DC, Chicago, Los Angeles.

Furthermore, in England, which bans the private ownership of guns, the violent crime rate is higher than in the United States.

A footnote: Ironically, Bellesiles’ own book mentions two examples which prove that where there are “more guns” there is “less crime,” and that a well-armed citizenry is a good idea. On page 435, he reports on the great Oklahoma land rush of 1889 where there were 15,000 men from around the world, “armed to the teeth, each fighting desperately for the best claim.” And yet, there was “not a single killing, gunshot wound, or fist fight” that took place.

Also, on pages 443-44, Bellesiles notes that in Northfield, Minnesota, on September 7, 1876, the Jesse James gang robbed a bank and shot a teller. Then the gang came under fire from the “good people of Northfield” who ran home, got their rifles, and shot all eight gang members, killing two of them.

In my next column, I’ll take a close look at one of those individuals who has enthusiastically endorsed the Bellesiles book and we’ll see how meaningful those promotional blurbs are that have been distributed by his publisher Alfred A. Knopf.