Fire at Will | The Nation


Fire at Will

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The Charges and Responses

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

The charges raised by Lindgren and dozens of others (including Alexander Cockburn in the April 8 Nation) have largely focused on one footnote to a table in the appendix to Arming America, which lists forty counties around the United States as sources of probate records--including San Francisco. That seemed unlikely to many historians, who know the San Francisco archives were destroyed in the 1906 earthquake and fire. Bellesiles had re-created from memory the list of the counties where he researched probate records, after the flood destroyed his notes. He went back to San Francisco and found the documents in question across the bay, in the Contra Costa County archives. He photocopied and distributed the documents in question and posted examples on his website (www.emory.edu/HISTORY/BELLESILES/index.html). They are indeed headed "City and County of San Francisco." The Contra Costa archivists confirm that the documents are real--and that they come from the Contra Costa County archives, not San Francisco. That's error, not fraud.

You might think that would end the discussion. But the attacks over the "San Francisco" probate records took on a life of their own. The director of the Contra Costa County Historical Center told inquiring reporters that Bellesiles had never been to that archive, because his name didn't appear on the sign-in sheet. New charges of fraud ricocheted around the gun websites, the history listservs and the media, including in the Chicago Tribune. Bellesiles explained simply that he hadn't signed in. Amid new demands that Columbia University take back his Bancroft Prize and that Emory fire him, few noticed the conclusion Bellesiles drew from the "San Francisco" documents: "probate records from the late 1850s reinforce the portrait of increased gun use in America." Those fifteen words are the only reference to "San Francisco" probate records in his 600-page book--and none of the critics appear to disagree with those fifteen words.

Another prominent area of concern was data used to compare murder rates, as evidenced in The William and Mary Quarterly issue that asked prominent historians to criticize Bellesiles, and him to respond. Although Randolph Roth found Bellesiles's data lacking, specifically in the Plymouth Colony case, Mary Beth Norton, a Pulitzer-nominated historian of early America who has worked in those records, went back and checked them herself for the sake of the debate. She concluded that Bellesiles's interpretation of the documents was "just as plausible" as that of his critics, "if not more so." She did find Bellesiles's use of probate records "slapdash and sloppy," but contends that the rest of the criticisms of Arming America "strike me as the usual sorts of disagreements historians always have about how to interpret documentary evidence, although those criticisms have been expressed more vehemently than is usual in the scholarly literature."

Bellesiles, in the draft of his response for the Quarterly, pointed out that everybody makes mistakes, and cited an error in Roth's article: Roth referred to what he said was information from the Plymouth Colony records of a murder, when in fact, Bellesiles said, that page was a record of births. But before publication the editors corrected Roth's error and deleted Bellesiles's argument from his response. (The Quarterly's editor, Christopher Grasso, acknowledged to me that the editors had made those changes, but added that they also made corrections in Bellesiles's piece where he had "mischaracterized or misquoted sources.")

Ultimately--and surprisingly, given all the cultural heat that's been generated--the probate records play an extremely small part in the argument made by Arming America. The index of the book refers to only twelve paragraphs where probate records are even mentioned, scattered throughout the book. One of these is a discussion of biases in probate records. That's a dozen paragraphs, in a book that's 600 pages long. The book relies on many different kinds of sources, all of them familiar to historians--newspapers, private letters and official correspondence, memoirs and diaries, travel accounts, Army records, and police and criminal court files.

On top of that, the gun-counters are avoiding the most significant issue Bellesiles raises. As Jack Rakove, a distinguished historian at Stanford University, has argued, "Even if a substantial portion or even majority of households possessed guns, genuine questions about their use would still remain." The key question here, he maintains, is "whether ordinary citizens had the skill to use firearms effectively." Bellesiles has good evidence that gun-owners had trouble maintaining their weapons and little experience in using guns, which were inaccurate and unreliable in most cases. One of my favorite examples: Of the famous Minutemen at Lexington Green in 1775, only seven actually fired their muskets, and only one Redcoat was actually hit. This kind of evidence is crucial to the debate over the origins of the Second Amendment because it undermines the NRA's picture of a citizen militia (rather than a national army) as the bulwark of American freedom.

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