Part 9 Michael A. Bellesiles: Mega Anti-Gun-Nut

Larry Pratt

Yet one more nail has been hammered into the coffin of Emory History Professor Michael A. Bellesiles’ book Arming America: The Origins Of A National Gun Culture (Alfred Knopf, 2000) which is rapidly being buried under a mountain of well-documented and compelling criticisms by scholars with expertise in this subject area.

The latest stake to be driven through the heart of this wretched book is an article in the University of Texas Law Review by Bentley History Professor Joyce Lee Malcolm who, among other things, is the author of To Keep And Bear Arms: The Origins Of An Anglo-American Right (Harvard University press, 1996). In addition, Prof. Malcolm is a Senior Fellow, MIT Security Studies Program. She has a Ph.D. from Brandeis University; a B.A. from Barnard College. And she is a Fellow, British Royal Historical Society. In her article, Prof. Malcolm says:

“Few historians have made such extravagant claims for their monographs nor had them accepted so uncritically as has Michael Bellesiles…. In virtually every aspect of his argument, Bellesiles’ claims are not supported by his sources and are at odds with those he has chosen to ignore or dismiss. This is not the occasional, unintentional error of fact or difference in emphasis. He has presented a skewed and distorted selection of the records, misquoted contemporary statements and statutes, provided inaccurate information, and erroneous accounts of the particular probate collections he specifically cites.”

Prof. Malcolm concludes: “[Bellesiles’] rash and unsupported statements on one issue after another, and his lack of any specifics about his 11,170 probate inventories ought to have alerted both scholars and his publisher that something was amiss. The blame for one of the most erroneous history books to be published in many years lies with its author. He has not busted a myth, he has tried mightily to create one.”

Now, some specifics. Here are some of the blanks Prof. Malcolm says Bellesiles has fired in his vicious, anti-gun diatribe:

    * Bellesiles says the English “preferred to maintain tight control of guns.” Prof. Malcolm points out the “awkward fact” that the English Bill Of Rights of 1689 guaranteed that Protestant Englishmen (then some 90 percent of the population) “may have arms for their defence.”

    * Bellesiles wants us to believe that all militia muskets were stored in government arsenals. Prof. Malcolm says that C.G. Cruickshank, Bellesiles’ source for this assertion, explains: “The reaction to this proposition was almost unanimous. It simply would not work… the scheme had no hope of success unless the individual providing the gun were allowed to keep it in his possession and use it when he felt like it.” Cruickshank found commissioners of musters paid little attention to this proposal to keep county firearms under lock and key “as virtually all considered the whole scheme to be impracticable.”

    * Prof. Malcolm notes that Bellesiles asserts, without supporting evidence, that English militia were allowed to train only with pikes, not guns — a statement that “is both false and senseless.”

    * Was the use of guns rare apart from warfare, as Bellesiles says? Prof. Malcolm says: “On the contrary, firearms seem to have been popular with the common people from the 1540s…. eighteenth-century legal experts leave no doubt that ordinary Englishmen had a right to be armed.” For example, in 1780 London’s chief legal counsel found the “right of his majesty’s Protestant subjects, to have arms for their own defence, and to use them for lawful purposes, is most clear and undeniable.” By the early nineteenth century this had been extended from Protestants to all Englishmen as a guidebook for constables explained: “Every man has by law a right to carry ordinary weapons for the defence of his person and property, and (if necessary) to kill those who offer violence to either.”

    * Prof. Malcolm says that Bellesiles’ notion that Americans regarded violence as “the monopoly of the state” simply “does not square with their obligation throughout the sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth centuries to defend themselves, their families and their neighbours.”

    * Did the early muzzleloader, as Bellesiles says, really take up to three minutes to load? Prof. Malcolm says that John Miller, an expert on black powder weapons, says that the colonial soldier was expected to be able to fire three shots per minute. And Robert O’Connell, the author of a book about the history of war and weapons published by Oxford University Press, says a colonial marksman could fire and reload a Brown Bess musket five times a minute.

    * Is it true, as Bellesiles says, that colonial legislatures only “occasionally” encouraged “private ownership of firearms by white male settlers” but realized this was a fruitless effort? Nope. Prof. Malcolm says these laws were not occasional but typical. They did not encourage ownership of firearms, they mandated it (emphasis mine). For example, the Plymouth colony ordered not only every militia member, but every householder to provide a musket or other serviceable firearm “for himselfe and each under him able to beare armes.” Virginia did the same although blacks were excepted from this requirement.

    * Were all militia weapons subject to storage in government storehouses, as Bellesiles maintains? Says Prof. Malcolm: “Not only would this have been impractical if firearms were to be used for individual defense, but laws such as Connecticut’s militia act of 1741 specifically ordered every householder to ‘always be provided with and have in continual readiness, a well-fixed firelock… or other good fire-arms.'” Similar laws existed in Georgia, Massachusetts and Virginia.

    * Regarding Bellesiles’ assertion that “no gun ever belonged unqualifiedly to an individual,” that guns might be “privately-owned, but they were state-controlled,” Prof. Malcolm says: “Guns were only taken by the state in an emergency, and then generally through purchase or loan. In May of 1775, when a committee of the Massachusetts Provincial Congress reported that “a few” residents enlisted in its service were “destitute of firearms, bayonets and other accoutrements,” the Congress resolved that the officials of these men’s towns supply them from town stock or “apply to such inhabitants… as, in their opinions, can best spare their arms or accountrements, and to borrow or purchase the same.” Prof. Malcolm explains: “Carts, horses, even houses and land can be requisitioned during wartime. This does not mean they are not privately owned.”

    * Contrary to Bellesiles’ saying that hunting for food was rare before the Civil War, Prof. Malcolm says that his review of contemporary travel accounts “omit dozens of other travelers who write of the widespread ownership of firearms.” For example, the famed French observer Alexis de Tocqueville, in his Journey To America, describes a typical “peasant’s cabin” in Kentucky or Tennessee as containing “a fairly clean bed, some chairs, a good gun.”

    * In a section titled Misquotes, Misleading Accounts And Skewed Evidence, Prof. Malcolm notes Bellesiles has quoted George Washington as saying this about the state of the Virginia militia during an emergency call-up in 1776: “Many of them [are] unarmed, and all without ammunition or provision.” But, Washington was not talking about the entire Virginia militia. He was, instead, referring to what he called “the odd behaviour of the few Militia that were marched hither from Fairfax, Culpepper, and Prince William counties, many of them unarmed.”

    * Bellesiles says of the Militia Act of 1792 — the new nation’s first militia act – that “Congress took upon itself the responsibility of providing [their] guns.” Prof. Malcolm says: “In fact, the law actually states that ‘every citizen so enrolled and notified, shall within six months thereafter, provide himself with a good musket or firelock’ and other accoutrements.”

    * Prof. Malcolm says Bellesiles also “provides misleading figures on the numbers of firearms in circulation by using a series of federal and Massachusetts censuses of militia firearms as if they were complete surveys of all civilian guns…. Unpalatable evidence, such as contemporary comments about a well-armed public or good marksmanship are dismissed by Bellesiles as either empty boasting or wishful thinking.”

    * Prof. Malcolm reports historian Harold Gill as having studied 572 colonial Virginia probate records and learned that 78.72 percent of men’s estates included firearms and 25.45 percent of women’s estates — percentages significantly higher than those alleged by Bellesiles. Gill examined inventories from York and Louisa counties and from his file of room inventories throughout Virginia. Prof. Malcolm says that since Gill’s tally does not take into account the age of the decedent his tally may be an undercount.

    * Bellesiles devotes only one-and-a-half pages of his 450-page book to the drafting and intent of the Second Amendment. In a note, he mentions Roger Sherman’s version of the Bill Of Rights “which played a key role in the congressional debates, addresses only the militia, with no reference to a right to bear arms.” Prof. Malcolm says: “In fact Roger Sherman’s version was submitted only to his two fellow committee members, played no role in Congress’ discussion, and only came to light 200 years later…. The committee’s complete rejection of Sherman’s version for what became the Second Amendment makes clear its intention to guarantee a right to individuals” (emphasis mine).

        Prof. Malcolm adds: “If Bellesiles had reported the progress through Congress of what would become the Second Amendment, readers would have learned that a House committee eliminated the stipulation that the militia be ‘well-armed’ and the Senate rejected the proposal to add ‘for the common defence’ after ‘to keep and bear arms.’ The emphasis was not on how well-armed the militia should be, but on the right of the people to be armed, and to be armed not for the collective, but for personal security” (emphasis mine).

    * Finally, Prof. Malcolm dismisses the notion that even if there were few guns in America before the Civil War that this means the Second Amendment could not have intended any individual right to have them. She says: “If this logic is applied to other rights it would mean if few Americans attended church the First Amendment did not intend freedom of conscience, or if there were few printing presses, freedom of the press was not actually guaranteed. This is a tortured and unconvincing argument.”