Fire at Will | The Nation


Fire at Will

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The Paper Trail

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...

Also by the Author

It’s time again for America’s annual concussion carnival.

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

What started as a politically motivated effort by the gun lobby and its supporters has expanded to include several scholars and historians who have devoted weeks and months to checking Bellesiles's footnotes in the archives where he did his research--a practice that is extremely unusual in historical scholarship. They have found that there are indeed some problems, especially with Bellesiles's use of probate records.

This Bellesiles has admitted, and he's offered an explanation: that a flood in April 2000 at the history office building at Emory destroyed his notes on the probate records (and also seriously damaged most of the rest of the offices--the university says the damage totaled almost a million dollars). Bellesiles's book manuscript was safe, but his probate notes were on yellow legal pads on a chair--admittedly an archaic mode of record storage--rather than on computer, and were turned to "unreadable pulp." After the flood he went to work trying to re-create the notes, and when his book was published a few months later, he posted notices on several history websites warning that his original notes on the probate records had been destroyed. (The lengths that critics will go to discredit Bellesiles are at least creative: Professor Jerome Sternstein of Brooklyn College put a dozen legal pads in his own shower for thirty minutes and reported to the world that they survived "intact and virtually unscathed"!)

Leading the pack of critics questioning Bellesiles's probate record data has been James Lindgren, a law professor at Northwestern University who (with Justin Lee Heather) published a critique of the probate data in the William & Mary Law Review. Their article on Bellesiles's one-page table on probate records ran to sixty-six pages, with 173 footnotes. They turn up some interesting numbers: More people listed guns in early wills than swords or Bibles. They report finding more guns, and more in good condition, than Bellesiles did. They conclude that Bellesiles "substantially misrecorded the 17th and 18th century data" on the number of gun owners. The energetic Lindgren published a second attack on Bellesiles in The Yale Law Journal--this one running fifty-four pages, with 247 footnotes. He concurs there with a point made by another critic, Randolph Roth, in a special issue of The William and Mary Quarterly, that Bellesiles has "a 100% error rate in finding homicide cases in the Plymouth (Colony)records." (The William and Mary Quarterly asked prominent historians to criticize Bellesiles, and then invited him to respond; one of Bellesiles's contentions has been that murders by gun were relatively rare in early America.)

Lindgren has not limited his contributions to law review publications, either. As The Chronicle of Higher Education pointed out, he's been "virtually ubiquitous" in the media write-ups of the controversy. He distributed his attack brief to journalists and "talks to them--a lot." He provides reporters--including this one--with lists of anti-Bellesiles academics, along with their contact information, and suggestions about how the story should be written.

Lindgren has also contacted historians who wrote positive reviews of Arming America and, according to the Chronicle, "urged them to reconsider their positions--in print." This is pretty much unheard of in academia. Matthew Warshauer reviewed the book favorably in the journal Connecticut History. He told me that Lindgren asked him to publish a retraction. "He added something like he would hate to have this affect my career. I viewed that as a veiled threat." Warshauer is an untenured associate professor at Central Connecticut State University. "I have twelve e-mails Lindgren sent me," he said, "including little ones, like 'where are you at with this?' He definitely kept up the pressure." The anti-Bellesiles campaign didn't stop there with Warshauer, either: One pro-gun website posted a link to Warshauer's graduate history seminar, where Bellesiles's book was assigned reading, and encouraged gun supporters to e-mail Warshauer. The director of the website, Angel Shamaya, even e-mailed Warshauer himself, saying, "If you're planning on exposing Bellesiles as the lying sack of anti-gun excrement he is, good for you.... but if, on the other hand, you're planning to pretend that...he is anything less than a deceitful snake--you're unfit to teach."

Who is James Lindgren? He told me he has no connection to the NRA and has never been a member or accepted funding from the group; furthermore, he contends that he is pro-gun control, dislikes guns and has never owned one. He accuses Bellesiles of bias, but apparently has some of his own: Before he weighed in on the Bellesiles debate, he published an article using data gathered by the right-wing Federalist Society that purports to prove the American Bar Association has been biased against George W. Bush's judicial nominees. Lindgren's methodology was exposed as deeply flawed in an article last December in the Journal of Law & Politics co-written by Michael Saks, a law professor who is also co-editor of the book Modern Scientific Evidence.

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