Emory University historian Michael Bellesiles caused quite a splash when he published Arming America: The Origins of the National Gun Culture, a book that ostensibly turned our understanding of the Second Amendment on its head.
The book was enthusiastically received and celebrated by the media establishment, who welcomed it with rave reviews and awards and pronounced the book proof that the Second Amendment does not protect individual gun ownership.
Bellesiles' thesis was that the framers of the Constitution must not have intended the Second Amendment to protect an individual right to own guns because private gun ownership was exceedingly rare at the time—and stayed that way until after the Civil War when the NRA nefariously created the "gun culture" that we know today and that we ascribe, incorrectly, to the framers.
Bellesiles backed up his theses with claims that he checked thousands of probate records and discovered that guns were scarce at the time of the framing.
This thesis was provocative, but it also appears to be wrong. In fact, it appears to be worse than wrong. People who have checked Bellesiles' claims against the probate records that he says he consulted have found that he drastically under states the number of guns they show.
Northwestern University law professor James Lindgren, an expert in probate records who has closely examined Bellesiles’ work, told the Boston Globe that "in virtually every part of the book examined in detail, there are problems."
"It's clear that this book is impressive to legal and social historians who do not check the background. Law professors and quantitative historians have been suspicious about the book since its release."
The data sets Bellesiles' drew from the probate records he claims to have examined are unavailable; Bellesiles says they were destroyed in a flood. Even more damning, one set of records that Bellesiles says he relied on were destroyed in the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and have been unavailable to anyone since then without access to a time machine.
Various scholars have been criticizing Bellesiles' research for months, but on Sept. 11, the Globe—fresh from breaking the tale of historian Joe Ellis’s Vietnam falsehoods — published a story revealing that the paper had investigated the claims against Bellesiles and found them to be true.
This was little noticed at the time, owing to other events, but on Oct. 3, Emory University decided that the criticisms constituted "prima facie evidence of scholarly misconduct," and ordered Bellesiles to account for himself. What explanation Bellesiles will offer is unclear, but a finding of unforgivable sloppiness seems to be about the best he can hope for.
But for our purposes, it doesn’t matter whether Bellesiles is a fraud or merely exceedingly careless. Because there’s another failure here, one that in some ways was far more serious than Bellesiles’.
Extraordinary claims, Carl Sagan said, require extraordinary evidence. And that evidence itself requires extraordinary examination. Yet Bellesiles’ claims – which counted as "provocative" precisely because they were in conflict with everything we thought we knew about the history of guns in America – got just the opposite. The people who should have examined his evidence rushed to embrace it, because it told them what they wanted to hear.
Writer Garry Wills, who reviewed the book for the The New York Times Book Review, wrote that "Bellesiles deflates the myth of the self-reliant and self-armed virtuous yeoman of the Revolutionary militias."
The Chronicle of Higher Education featured the book on its front page, with the headline "Exploding the Myth of an Armed America." The American Prospect wrote that "The image of . . . the American founders believing in an individual’s right to keep and bear arms . . . turns out to be a myth."
Arming America even received the (up to now) prestigious Bancroft Prize from Columbia University.
Instead of reviewers who might be skeptical of Bellesiles’ research, mainstream publications assigned reviewers who were antigun.
Wills, for example, has had a reputation as rabidly antigun for years.
Carl Bogus, who reviewed the book for The American Prospect, is a longtime gun-control activist. Richard Slotkin, who praised Arming America in The Atlantic Monthly, has referred to the notion of guns as instruments of liberty and equality as "self-evidently crazy."
That such reviewers would not expend any great effort in checking out Bellesiles’ claims should come as no surprise, and in fact they didn’t. But this raises an interesting question about the claim that mainstream, traditional media organizations always make in defense of their importance: that they are careful and responsible, while alternative media and the Internet are not. The Internet, they tell us, is a domain of hype and hoaxes, while traditional media can be trusted to check things out and get them right.
Yet if one looks at Amazon.Com’s reviews of Arming America, it is immediately evident that Amazon reviewers found the problems with Bellesiles’ book a year ago, while the establishment was still smitten.
On Oct. 24, 2000, for example, Amazon reader Sondra Wilkins did something that Garry Wills did not: she checked some of Bellesiles’ sources and reported: "In checking his sources, often the ones he lists, even the particular pages that he lists, contain evidence that contradicts his claims. He quotes parts of sentences from those sources and ignores the contradictory information on that same page."
Another reader, David Ihnat, said he couldn’t believe Bellesiles’ claim that it took 3 minutes to load and fire a muzzle-loading rifle. His report: "Never having fired a flintlock before, I tried to load and fire 10 times in succession, and was able to average 50 seconds per load." His conclusion: "Bellesiles has an axe to grind, and worked it throughout this book."
Meanwhile, elsewhere on the Internet, amateur scholars were posting long critiques of Bellesiles’ work, only to see those critiques dismissed by Bellesiles and his defenders as the work of those ignorant yahoos on the Internet.
It appears, however, that the Internet is sometimes harder to fool than the establishment. Five days after the Globe story appeared, the New York Times was repeating Wills’ praise of Arming America in support of the paperback version.
Keep this in mind the next time the establishment is rallying behind a "provocative" scholarly analysis that just happens to echo views that the establishment has always held.
Glenn Harlan Reynolds is Professor of Law at the University of Tennessee College of Law, and writes for the InstaPundit.Com.
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