Fire at Will | The Nation


Fire at Will

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When historian Michael Bellesiles came to the University of California, Irvine, to give a talk on the controversy surrounding his book Arming America: The Origins of a National Gun Culture--this was early in 2001, before he was charged with inventing evidence, and before he was awarded the prestigious Bancroft Prize for the book--people coming to the talk were greeted at the door of the Humanities Lecture Hall by four unusually large men passing out a brochure titled "The Lies of Michael Bellesiles." One wore a flak jacket, one had a shaved head; they did not look like faculty members or even history grad students. People coming to the talk were startled, and some were a little frightened, but Bellesiles said calmly, "Ah, so they did come."

The author may be contacted regarding this piece at JonWiener@hotmail.com.

About the Author

Jon Wiener
Jon Wiener
Jon Wiener teaches US history at UC Irvine. His most recent book is How We Forgot the Cold War: A Historical Journey...

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Three million Vietnamese names, etched on copper plates 13 feet high.

The large men were activists in the pro-gun, anti-Bellesiles movement, which had been campaigning to discredit his work since before the publication of Arming America by Knopf in September 2000. The book argues that our picture of guns in early America is all wrong: the picture where America is settled by men with guns, hunting game and fighting Indians; where, in 1776, militiamen grabbed their guns to go fight for independence; where the Founding Fathers protected individuals' right to own guns. Bellesiles argues that instead, gun culture is a fairly recent development in American history--that for two centuries before the Civil War, few Americans owned guns; that the guns they had were unreliable and didn't shoot straight; that few people hunted with guns, instead relying on trapping and animal husbandry; that even in battle, even in the Revolutionary War, swords, axes and fire were more deadly than guns. Not until the Civil War put guns in the hands of millions of men did gun culture flourish.

The political implications are significant for the National Rifle Association and others: The Second Amendment, this suggests, was not adopted to protect the widespread ownership or popularity of guns--it was instead intended to address the inadequacy of the weapons in the hands of local militias, on which the early nation relied in the absence of a standing army. So gun-rights groups targeted Bellesiles and his book, and large men in flak jackets came to his talk at Irvine and other places. (Caveat lector: In the 1980s, Bellesiles was a student in a couple of courses I taught at Irvine; but I had talked to him only once or twice in the nearly twenty years before his return to UCI that day in 2001.)

In his talk, Bellesiles described how in 1831 John James Audubon was accused by his enemies of fraud in his painting of a rattlesnake climbing a tree to a bird's nest--because, they said, rattlesnakes can't climb trees; and even though Audubon proved rattlesnakes could climb trees, nothing he said or wrote persuaded his critics--because their goal was to discredit and destroy his work. Bellesiles said his own experience was similar: Even when he answered one of his critic's charges, the same charge was still repeated over and over.

When the question period came, he started with the first of the four large men. "You say the probate records show very few guns, and argue that this proves people in early America didn't have guns. But when my father died, there was nothing in his will about his guns--even though he owned four of them. But he had told me he wanted me to have them, and now I do. Are probate records really a good source of evidence on gun ownership?"

Bellesiles answered, "I'm sure you're right about your father's will, but wills in the eighteenth century were different. People didn't own very many things compared to today, and their wills contained a detailed list of everything they had, down to the knives and forks. There are other problems with probate records--they are biased in many ways. But I'm confident that if an eighteenth-century man owned a gun, it would be in his will. Remember that we're talking here about wills in the 1700s."

He called on the second large man. "I want to ask about your use of probate records," he said. "You say probate records showed few guns, but my father owned several guns that did not appear in his will when he died. My brother and I divided them up."

Bellesiles paused and looked around the room, where students glanced at each other with stunned disbelief: So this is what it's like when you're the target of a campaign to destroy your work.

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