Part 5 Michael A. Bellesiles: Mega Anti-Gun-Nut

Larry Pratt

One of those individuals who is a true-believer in Prof. Michael A. Bellesiles’ book Arming America: The Origins Of A National Gun Culture is Robert C. Ritchie, Director of Research at The Huntington Library in San Marino, California. In a press release distributed by Bellesiles’ publisher, Alfred A. Knopf, Ritchie is quoted as saying: “At long last a superb book that systematically dismantles one of our most cherished and dangerous national myths. Bellesiles has made a major contribution to a significant public policy debate.”

Curious as to how much Ritchie really knows about the book he so enthusiastically endorses, we contacted him and asked a few questions. To put it mildly, he was not pleased with our inquiries.

For openers, Ritchie says yes, he did read the book. OK, so how does he know it is accurate? Says Ritchie: “Well, you never know. You have to take a certain amount of it for granted, particularly in areas you don’t know that well.”

Is the subject of the Bellesiles book an area he knows well? Ritchie replies: “I know a fair amount about the early American period, yeah. But in terms of tracking out the footnotes, the way they have been tracked out in this one area of colonial probate records — that’s the only stuff I’ve seen. That’s been questioned.”

This probate record “stuff” is, of course, a key part of the Bellesiles book upon which many of his conclusions rest. Did Ritchie not have the same capability as some others who have checked out, in detail, some of the probate record databases Bellesiles says he examined. And could he have not done this prior to his endorsement of Arming America? He replies: “Yeah.” But, he did not do this.

Would Ritchie not agree that whether the Bellesiles book is “superb,” or a “major contribution to a significant public policy debate” is directly related to whether it is accurate or not? Does it matter to him if the book is true or false?

Ritchie: “Yes, it does.”

And yes, Ritchie says he is aware of many of the detailed criticisms of the Bellesiles book, including the 57-page paper by James Lindgren and Justin Lee Heather of Northwestern University.

OK. So, have any of these critiques caused Ritchie to re-think his endorsement of the Bellesiles book, or investigate what any of these critics say? He replies: “I just look at the stuff on the email.”

Concerning the devastating demolition of the Bellesiles book by Lindgren/Heather, Ritchie says “there are problems with that, too.” Such as?

Ritchie: “I mean, the whole area of probate is technical. I don’t think anybody has sorted all of it out yet. Michael (Bellesiles) has at least agreed to share some of his data with everyone and set up a Web site.” And where can this Web site be seen? Ritchie: “He’s setting it up as far as I know now. I don’t know for sure.”

When told that Lindgren/Heather say that Bellesiles told them that he has only tallies on yellow pads, Ritchie tells us that “obviously, you have an ax to grind in this.” We say that the only ax we have to grind is to try and find out if what Bellesiles says is true.

Ritchie: “The whole thing here is that it (the truth of the Bellesiles book) can’t be really established the way you want to establish about probates. I think there is a problem with Michael’s probate materials” (emphasis ours).

OK, we ask, then why did you enthusiastically endorse his book if you admit there are problems with his materials? Says Ritchie: “Because the probate records I’ve seen for the 17th century go right along with what Michael says.” And which database is this? Ignoring the question, Ritchie — who is a Director Of Research! — says: “If I was to go and do research on every book I read and give a blurb on, I’d spend nothing else but my time doing that. [The Bellesiles book] seemed to me, from what I knew, to be correct.”

We repeat our question: So, what probate records did you check and find out Bellesiles reported on them correctly? Ritchie says he read “17th century probate records from New York.” But, no, he can’t tell us which specific records because to do this “I would have to go to my files.”

OK, so did Ritchie check these New York records prior to his endorsement of the Bellesiles book? He replies, incredibly: “No. Why would I do that?”

Well, as the younger folks say: “Duh!”

Astonished by his question, we tell Ritchie one reason he might have done this is because he might have wanted to determine that the Bellesiles book was true before endorsing it. He says that from his knowledge, “I don’t remember there being a lot of guns recorded in the probates for New York in the 17th century.”

We ask: So, if they are not recorded, that means, to you, that they didn’t exist?

Ritchie: “Yeah.”

Again flabbergasted, we remind him: But, you have said the probate records are incomplete! To which he replies: “I know”!

When we start to ask Ritchie how then he can say what he said based solely on probate records, he interrupts to say that our conversation is “going nowhere.” He says “thank you” and hangs up the phone.

But, of course, our little chat with Robert C. Ritchie did go somewhere — not where he wanted it to go, to be sure. But it did go somewhere. And what it reveals is that at least one official endorser of the Bellesiles book was no more careful with his endorsement than the “Nutty Professor” was in writing his book.

In my next column, I will report on more information which is at odds with what is said in “Arming America.”