Fire at Will
The attack against Arming America actually started well before its publication two years ago. Bellesiles's research on the subject stretches back for years; he won an award from the Organization of American Historians in 1996 for an essay on the origins of American gun culture. It's natural that his work would attract both attention and vitriol from the gun lobby. After reading a summary of Bellesiles's research in The Economist, NRA chief Charlton Heston wrote in the December 1999 issue of Guns & Ammo that "Bellesiles clearly has too much time on his hands." By the time Arming America came out, complete with a fiery introduction that mentioned the gun lobby, Heston was telling the New York Times that Bellesiles's work was "ludicrous."
From such beginnings, the effort to discredit Bellesiles has spread beyond the NRA and gun websites (shooters.com concludes, "Everything Bellesiles wrote is false, bogus, a big lie"; KeepAndBearArms.com has a page headlined "Michael A. Bellesiles: Mega Anti-Gun-Nut--Part XVI"; and Clayton Cramer, a gun activist and amateur historian who savaged Bellesiles on the National Review website and who writes about him regularly for Shotgun News, pleads on his own website for readers to support his campaign against Bellesiles by sending him money). It has moved, too, beyond the Wall Street Journal, The New Criterion, The Weekly Standard and the National Review challenging the book's evidence and conclusions, into a high-stakes academic struggle that could conceivably cost the author his job. (At this prospect, the NRA gleefully suggested in one of its grassroots alerts that "perhaps some of his biggest fans have noticed vultures circling over his career and credibility.") Along the way, historians who wrote positive reviews of the book have been bombarded with belligerent e-mail urging them to reverse their opinions and publicly retract their reviews; Columbia University, the institution that gave Bellesiles the Bancroft Prize, has been urged to retract it; in May the National Endowment for the Humanities had its name removed from a $30,000 fellowship Bellesiles was completing in Chicago under the aegis of the Newberry Library; Bellesiles himself has been the target of hate mail and death threats; and finally, the campaign has focused on pressuring Emory University in Atlanta, where he teaches, to fire him.
The charge made by the critics is an extremely serious one: not that the book contains errors and mistakes but rather that Bellesiles has faked evidence to support an otherwise untenable argument. The charge, in other words, is fraud. (The NRA uses quotation marks when it refers to his "research," and suggests that the book has been "moved to the fiction aisle in most bookstores.") Ironically, this controversy is over a book that has also been highly praised by some of the top historians in America: Garry Wills wrote in The New York Times Book Review, "Bellesiles has dispersed the darkness that covered the gun's early history in America." Edmund Morgan, the award-winning Yale historian, wrote in The New York Review of Books, "No one else has put [the facts] together in so compelling a refutation of the mythology of the gun or in so revealing a reconstruction of the role the gun has actually played in American history." And then there's the Bancroft Prize, awarded annually to top books in history.